Karl Mannheim (1883-1947)

Karl Mannheim
Mannheim was an initiator of the field of sociology of knowledge--especially in Ideology and Utopia (1936). Mannheim asserted that there was no single view of reality, and that even scientific knowledge was the outcome of a social relationship. Social problems are not objective phenomena. They are the interpretations from some particular perspective. Problem definition is a political exercise, largely based on the values of some group of policy actors.

Example 1. Very early in American democracy, benefits were differentially distributed by the legislative process that depicted some sets of people as more deserving than others. Pensions for Revolutionary War veterans were limited only to those who fought in the Continental Army, and were not available to those who were in the militia. This limiting of the pension benefit was particularly galling for equally deserving people (for example, the nurses in the field hospitals). Further, pensions were only available to those who were financially needy.

Example 2. The current debate in the Virginia legislature regarding Payday Lending is an informative example of social construction of target populations. House Bill No. 1441 (Patrons: Oder, Abbott, and Ebin) states that "No person extending credit under the provisions of subsection A may charge and receive interest at a single annual rate that exceeds 36 percent" (§6.2-312).

Lobbyist-in-a-Box is a free service that tracks Virginia legislation.

Example 3. Although recipients of welfare generally are less active politically, mothers on welfare whose children are involved in Head Start have political participation rates and orientations towards government that are indistinguishable from their non-welfare peers. This is attributed to the "maximum feasible participation" orientation of Head Start.

Example 4. Some constructions of deviance are self-perpetuating. For example, lepers in the U.S. were constructed as a deviant group and incarcerated in a Louisiana bayou. They were permitted no outside contact or family life, denied voting privileges, and even postal service. (Compare the experience of lepers in Hawaii who were “exiled” to Molokai.)

When science rejected the notion that leprosy was highly contagious and devised a treatment protocol in the 1940s, the bayou inmates refused to be moved for more than 50 years.

Eventually attrition and the payment to the surviving inmates of $33,000 per year succeeded in disbanding the colony.

What is "Social Construction" About?

The following is paraphrased or quoted from Ingram, Schneider, & Deleon (2007).

The concept of social construction emerged from the observation that policymakers typically project a certain social aura--either positive or negative--onto a particular segment of the population that will be the target of a policy. If this social construction is positive, it helps to justify the distribution of benefits to this target population. On the other hand, penalties are clearly warranted for segments of the population for whom the social construction is negative.

"The incorporation of social construction of target populations as part of policy design helps explain why public policy, which can have such a positive effect on society, sometimes--and often deliberately--fails in its nominal purpose, fails to solve important public problems, perpetuates injustice, fails to support democratic institutions, and produces an unequal citizenship" (p. 93).

Some of the key questions that social construction helps to answer are:

  1. How is it that, while every citizen is nominally equal before the law, policy design tends to distribute benefits to some people while almost always punishing others?
  2. Why is it that some policies are perpetuated and even enlarged, despite their failure to achieve policy goals?
  3. How is it that some negatively constucted groups are able to gain a more positive social construction and better treatment by policymakers, whereas others do not?
  4. Why and how does it happen that policy designs sometimes depart from the typical reproduction of power and social constructions to introduce change in institutions, power relationships, and the social construction of target groups?

The social construction framework "can be used to generate empirical, testable propositions" about important concerns "about justice, citizenship, effective problem-solving, and democracy" (p. 93). Policymakers respond to and manipulate social constructions in building their political base, and such manipulation may result in an outcome that is only one of a number of ways of achieving the goal of the policy.

The recent application of social construction has synthesized interest group theory with institutional analysis. In terms of interest groups, Lowi asserted that "policy creates politics," because the distribution of benefits and burdens gives rise to political activity (in keeping with one of the common conceptions of politics as being about the distribution of scant resources). Lowi was interested in the "feed forward" effect of groups that organized to take advantage of the opportunity provided by policy. On the other hand, Pierson focused on the feedback effects of policy designs upon institutions. In this case, policy is seen as continuing well beyond the juncture at which it has ceased to be relevant.

"Target groups" or "target populations" are the groups designated to receive benefits or burdens in the policy design. Other elements of the policy design include

Social constructions may become viewed as natural conditions, which brings into consideration the concept of hegemony--when the perspective of the dominant social group is taken-for-granted as the "right" way of interpreting events and circumstances. Past and current policy designs impact future policy designs in the way indicated in Figure 1. This shows that past and current policy designs identify target populations and allocate benefits and burdens, as discussed above, but also generate rules, designate tools, assert rationales and propose causal logic to support the relationship between the "problem" and the policy design. "Policy designs shape the experience of target groups and send implicit messages about how important their problems are to government and whether their participation is likely to be effective" (p. 96).

Figure 1.

Social construction policy design

As shown in Figure 1, past and current policy designs impact on institutions and culture (see the left-hand side of the central ellipse) both by instrumental means (e.g., by creating new rules) and by symbolic means (different interpretations).

Past and current policy also impacts on society directly by setting democratic values, what it means to be a citizen, the problem-solving capacity of society, and the understanding of justice.

The dynamics of policymaking include, for instance, interest groups, social movements, agencies, and elected officials and their staff, in addition to those who are formally determining future policy designs.

"In sum, these [future] policy designs usually reproduce the prevailing institutional culture, power relationships, and social constructions, but at times depart from this pattern and introduce change" (p. 97).

Six Propositions

The following set of tabs discuss six propositions about how the social construction framework plays out in the real world.

  • Prop 1
  • Prop 2
  • Prop 3
  • Prop 4
  • Prop 5
  • Prop 6
Policy designs structure opportunities and send various messages to differently constructed target groups about how government behaves and how they are likely to be treated by government. Both the oppportunity structures and the messages impact the political orientations and participation patterns of target populations.

Example 1 above discusses an early instance of a policy sending a message of worth to socially constructed target groups.

Along the same lines, state constitutions granted voting rights to men, but denied them to women. Felons are often denied the right to vote--even after they have completed their sentence. Some two million people are in prison, and another four million are under correctional supervision, so a large number of people--many of whom are minorities--are disenfranchised from the political system. This results in this negatively constructed group being further marginalized and less active in politics.

Less extreme examples of groups who are marginalized and less active in politics include those on various forms of welfare. They are negatively constructed as responsible for their own plight, and subjected to demeaning means tests and the discretion of case workers. The "message" to the welfare recipient embedded in the policy is that he/she is not worthy of the benefit being bestowed. This "message" is heard by the welfare recipients themselves, who agree that "most" welfare recipients are responsibile for their own situation. Example 3 illustrates a counter-example that supports this proposition.

Conversely, positively constructed groups who receive benefits are quite active in politics. For example, senior citizens who receive social security benefits (in contrast to those on welfare), and military veterans who benefited from the GI Bill.

There are two types of policy effects:

  • interpretative (or symbolic, or rhetorical) effects--associated with social constructions, and
  • resource (or material, or instrumental) effects--associated with the exercise of political authority or economic resources.

Too strong a distinction between the two types of effects is not warranted, since all resource effects send strong interpretative messages--as discussed above.

The allocation of benefits and burdens to target groups in public policy depends upon the extent of their political power, and their positive or negative social construction on the deserving or undeserving axis.

A target group's political power is indicated by group size, cohesion, ease of mobilization, wealth and skill level of its members, and how focused on issues of concern, and how well-connected the members are. The second dimension can be thought of a valence: "the positive or negative social constructions of the group" (p. 101).

Figure 2 suggests how some target groups compare in terms of political power and favorability of social construction.

  • Advantaged groups are seen as deserving people and are likely to receive a greater share of benefits than burdens--and even the burdens are a result of choice, or an outcome of codes of ethics. Policy implementation structures take the form of agency outreach to inform potential recipients of their elegiblilty. Policy designs include many forums for participation, and implementing agents can be held accountable. Providing benefits for advantaged groups generates much political capital--the advantaged groups are favorably impressed, and public perception connects the benefits to broad national interests.
  • Contender groups are likely to receive benefits because of their political power, but these are likely to be hidden in the depths of legislation because no legislator wants to be seen doing good things for shady people. Contender groups often receive burdens in legislation, and are harshly criticized, but the burdens are hard to enforce and easily challenged in the courts.
  • Dependent groups are seen as deserving--at least of sympathy. They lack the political power to receive adequate benefits, and when benefits become available they are means-tested, or subject to curtailment through budget shortfalls. "Policymakers must take care not to appear mean-spirited, but they prefer not to expend important resources on dependents unless absolutely necessary" (p. 103). FEMA's response after Hurricane Katrina attests to the plight of the dependent group.
  • Deviant groups lack both political power and positive social construction and receive a disproportionate share of burdens. In the U.S., deviants are like a permanent underclass. Policymakers stand to gain much political capital by burdening members of the deviant group, and the members do not have the wherewithal to fight back. There are few if any advocacy groups willing to champion the deviants' cause.

Social construction matrix

At times, some groups have contested social constructions. For example, illegal immigrants have different policy actors portraying them as essential components sustaining the low-paying end of the U.S. economy, or as lawbreakers who take the jobs of legitimate U.S. citizens. It will be interesting to see what political resolution is reached if Congress accepts President Obama's State of the Union, spring 2011 challenge to deal with the issue of illegal immigration definitively.

Some groups may be in transit. For example, the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" in the military may signify a transition for gays, who may also have lost some sympathy along the path to gaining and weilding some political power.

Policy design elements, including tools, rules, rationales, and delivery structures, differ according to the social construction and power of target groups.

“The way clients are treated…during implementation differs significantly depending upon the power and social construction of target groups” (p. 104). Typically, groups that are constructed as deserving are served by federal programs with professionalized services and specific rules of allocation.

Groups that are constructed as less-deserving are served by state or local administrators, and members of these groups have to contend with caseworkers who have discretion over the provision of benefits or the imposition of burdens. For example, social insurance clients have a regulated financial relationship with a federal agency. On the other hand, public assistance clients relate to a personal caseworker, and have to navigate numerous rules that have been established to regulate their lives.

“Social welfare legislation sometimes deprives the disadvantaged of all but symbols” (p. 104). For example, the primary benefit for battered women in the 1996 welfare reform contained no provisions that could actually help battered women.

Policy designs to censure fathers who fail to financially support their former families vary depending on whether the children are supported by welfare. If the children are on welfare, all support monies collected goes to the state (for fathers whose children are not on welfare, the support monies go directly to the family). For fathers whose children are on welfare, states may seek reimbursement for child support even as far back as the birth of the child (fathers whose children are not on welfare are liable only as far back as the child support filing). The intent seems to be to punish fathers who have children without providing for their support.

Rationales for policy designs are also construction-driven, and policy tools are matched to the rationales. For example, the rationales supporting federal AIDS policy never explicitly mention homosexuality. By not highlighting the largest group of AIDS sufferers who may have a negative social construction, it was more acceptable for members of the U.S. Senate to support the provision of benefits.

Another example is drinking and driving policy. In this area, four groups have been socially constructed:

  • killer drunks,
  • impaired drivers,
  • those who are evidence of alcohol abuse as a disease, and
  • those for whom alcohol promotes irresponsible behavior.

The burdens of the policy are unequally distributed across the four socially constructed groups.

The deserving/undeserving continuum of social construction is not characteristic of all policy domains. However, there are distinct differences in the policy designs pertinent to advantaged, contender, dependent, and deviant target groups, with advantaged group members receiving the most favorable treatment. However, “some research suggests that, when policy tools are selected on the basis of social constructions, the resultant policy designs are more difficult to implement and less effective than they would otherwise be” (p. 106).


Policymakers, especially elected politicians, respond to, perpetuate, and help create social constructions of target groups in anticipation of public approval or probation.

The consequences of policy design feedback ("feed forward") to discourage the political participation of negatively constructed groups and encourage that of positively constructed groups. Elected leaders as policy actors provide advantaged groups with benefits because these groups are seen as deserving, and are well organized politically. They typically either ignore negatively constucted groups, or even inflict punishment on them under the guise of "getting tough." Elected leaders want to avoid providing benefits for "deviant" groups or even "contenders."

People tend to maximise the difference between their group and other groups--even if there is no personal gain involved. This may be done in terms of creating myths about the "other" group or groups. "In time, these myths become inculcated in the culture and embodied in policies so that their authenticity is unquestioned" (p. 107). Hence, in 1996, the myth of "criminal aliens" was prevalent in the immigration control debates. This tendency to maximise the difference was evident in the 2006 immigration debates as alien "lawlessness."

"Moral entrepreneurs...translate broad-based social anxieties and negative perceptions of marginal groups into legislative crusades the convince others that particular deviants are not being sufficiently punished" (p. 108). Moral entrepreneurs are frequently associated with dominant institutions in society: churches or government. There are numerous intervening factors between social construction and policy design. One of these is the availability of "sufficient political profit to entice a policy champion to place the issue on the political agenda and work to secure passage of a targeted policy" (p. 108).


Social constructions of target groups can change, and public policy design is an important, though certainly not singular, force for change. The seeds for altering social constructions can often be found in the unanticipated or unintended consequences of previous policy designs.

Science has a role to play in moderating social constructions. What circumstances gave rise to the photo and caption shown below? What social construction is evident here?

Positive drug user

What social constuction is evident in the following photo?

Negative drug user

What differences do you note between the two?
I'm leaving five blank lines here so you will think about the differences between these two photos before you continue.

Both these photos relate to compulsory treatment for drug users. In what ways would the policies based on these two social constructions be expected to differ?

A study of compulsory drug treatment in lieu of incarceration pointed out the transition of drug users as a group from deviant to dependent status—prompted by the consistent testimony of medical professionals. This testimony resulted in drug users who were not involved in actually selling drugs being classified as “ill” people who could be cured by treatment (as in the first photo above, and photo below), rather than “dangerous to society” (as in the second photo above).


“Where strong social constructions exist, science that goes against the grain is usually ignored, whereas science that reinforces stereotypes is used as a rationale but changes few minds” (p. 109).

Policy designs can sometimes be a factor in modifying social constructions. Policy directing resources to intermediary groups can provide benefits for negatively constructed groups. For example, the service providers for the homeless, and providers of recreation facilities catering to gang members build the positive image of the service providers themselves despite the negative social construction of the providers’ clients.

However, the introduction of intermediary groups does not always improve the situation for clients. For example the introduction of private prisons may be a factor in increasing the length of sentences meted out by the courts.

Policy design may have limited effect on social constructions. For example, negative stereotypes of welfare recipients persisted even after strict rules were enforced in 1996 that reduced welfare , forced many recipients of welfare to take low-paying jobs, and limited the time for which benefits were eligible for benefits (“poor people do not work because welfare recipients can get government benefits without doing anything in return” p. 111). One reason was that the tighter regulations were invisible to the general public. Another reason was that very few of the general public had first-hand experience of being on welfare.

In degenerative policymaking contexts, differences in policy designs are related to different patterns of policy change.

A key question in policy analysis has been “who benefits and who loses from policy change?” The social construction framework suggests that increased return is likely to result from

  1. Conferring benefits to advantaged groups. Each policy change that confers more benefits to a powerful, positively constructed target group will result in increased support from the target group, and little opposition from other groups.
  2. Conferring burdens on deviant groups. Each increase of the burden on a deviant group produces public approval .

The increased return may come to an end eventually, but long after the policy is no longer useful.

On the other hand, imposing burdens on advantaged groups will result in decreased return. The advantaged groups will resist the burden (unless it is clearly justified). Hence, “any additional policy burdens will generate too much opposition to be politically sustainable” (p. 112).

The social construction framework predicts that policies imposing punishments on deviants will outlive treatment policies. Since 1880, “periods of increases [of punishment] typically lasted far longer, were more frequent, and were less apt to be broken [resulting in the fact that] the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world” (p. 113).

The social construction framework would also predict that policy granting benefits to negatively constructed groups would be whittled away over time. For example, the 1985 immigration legislation that imposed sanctions on employers who employed illegal immigrants was seldom enforced, and has been weakened by each successive revision of federal immigration policy. Similarly, the 1968 Fair Housing Act has been systematically weakened in the provision of burdens for banks and real estate agencies that discriminate against racial minorities.