NOTE: I know I’ve stopped chopping up entries in parts a long time ago because it’s inconvenient for readers, but this entry was just way too long to keep as one piece.
Constructionists obviously use the term “social construct” quite a bit, since it’s the central concept of the ideology, and this may create some confusion as to what constructionism is really about. What a person thinks about constructionism will heavily depend on how they understand the term “social construct.” So I think it’s important to clear up the term.
A simple, if obvious, definition of a social construct would be that it’s constructed by society. I think the “constructed” term needs the most explanation here. When we say constructed, we mean it’s not imaginary, but it’s also not the result of observations about reality.
Consider how many levels of reality we hold in our heads when we say something “exists.” I can say, for instance, that the table in front of me exists. I can say that the concept of tables exists. I can say that property relations exist. I can also say that Superman exists.
All of these statements pertain to an entirely different kind of “existence.” When I say “the table in front of me exists,” I am referring to an existing object which can be perceived with the senses. When I say “the concept of tables exists,” I am referring to an idea in my head which refers to existing objects which can be perceived with the senses. When I say “Superman exists,” I am talking about a character which exists within the bounds of a fictional universe or universes which is depicted in documents which are perceived with the senses.
But think further about how the concept of Superman is constructed. I won’t rehash the entire history of the Superman character, but like most comic book heroes it had a beginning, and further iterations which evolved from that beginning. That is to say, “Superman” as a concept does not arise solely from the imagination but is the result of a history of fictional representations (for another example, think of any popular creature such as vampires, zombies or ghosts, and how our conceptions of them changes over time due to new representations). And the idea of Superman itself did not arise ex nihilo, but was itself the result of numerous cultural influences and popular ideas.
When we say something is constructed, we mean that it is the result of human thought and evolves as an independent entity within the realm of human thought. My table is not the result of human thought, it exists as a piece of matter that can be measured. On the other hand, anything I imagine in my own head cannot exist as an independent entity unless I express it to others and they pick it up as well.
At this point I think I should start using some examples, so let’s start with a pretty famous one, money. The paper that money is printed on exists in a very concrete way, but money itself, the idea that these pieces of paper have some value beyond that of the paper and that this value should be used in exchanges, is a social construct. The concept of money has evolved throughout millennia from weights of barley or shells to electronic accounting numbers. At every step of the way, the construct evolved from its previous conceptions: none of them are the result of observations of reality or purely imaginary.
So, complicating the issue even more, you have to differentiate between the social construct and the objects through which we regulate and control social constructs. People often confuse the two and think that this must mean that social constructs are really the objects and therefore “really exist” (i.e. exist as objects). Money is a social construct and does not “really exist” (i.e. exist as objects), but it does exist (as a social construct) and it is controlled and regulated through objects (as it must be).
Another good example of this dichotomy is property relations, which are relations between one person (“owner” of the object) and the other people in the society (non-“owners” of the object). These relations are sanctioned and defined as part of a legal or customary tradition. The objects that are labeled property (e.g. land, a house, a table) exist as objects, the relation itself (e.g. “I own this table”) exists as a social construct.
Theoretically the object can exist without the relation, but it would no longer be socially relevant. In a society like ours, where property relations are all-important, everything must be owned in order to be relevant. Anything that is not owned, such as the air or the oceans, is fair game for pollution and depletion.
Like everything that exists, property relations and money have causal influence in the world, even if you don’t believe in their validity. So there is this belief that if something is a social construct, then all we need to do is stop believing in it individually and we’re somehow attacking the problem. But social constructs have an independent existence which persists whether you or I continue to believe in them, and they are backed by institutions which will enable that persistence whether you like it or not. Even though they are not measurable objects in the world, they have a strong push back through their believers and the institutions that support them.
You observe this for gender as well; there are some people who believe that acting as if gender does not exist, or that denying the existing gender categories, is somehow an anti-genderist activity. But gender is profoundly rooted in every single institution around us, and will not be shaken in any way because you’ve personally declared yourself genderqueer or neutrois. It matters little to the continuation of Patriarchy whether there are two, three, or a hundred official genders, as long as the hierarchical nature of gender is maintained.
Gender is also another social construct which is often confused with its object, which is the human body. Because people assign or guess gender based on their observation of the person’s body, it has become fashionable to confuse the body with gender itself. But gender is a social construct, not an object.
Some people use the term “social construct” to mean that something does not exist, but that’s not in line with social constructionism. Social constructs like gender and race do exist (as social constructs) and have a profound influence on humans and their societies (as mediated by institutions and their objects); so saying that something is a social construct does not prove that it doesn’t exist, but rather confirms its existence in a huge way.
The substance of a social construct is agreement, and let me tell you, if you don’t think agreement is a real thing, try breaking all the mores and rules you can and see how far it gets you. People will very rapidly enforce agreement on you whether you like it or not.
Apart from money, property relations and gender, here are some other social constructs:
* Religion is a social construct and the source of many social constructs, such as the sacred/profane and salvation.
* Race is a social construct, with the human body as its object, although, as for gender, assigned race varies with context.
* Political ideologies, including parties and economic ideologies, are social constructs. They are all born out of specific social circumstances and evolve by necessity or disappear.
* The concept of marriage, including rules about who can marry who (endogamy and exogamy) and the kind of ownership it implies, is a social construct.
* Countries, such as borders and differences in laws between countries, are social constructs. Laws themselves, and justice systems, are also social constructs.
* The hierarchy of social status (including slavery) is a social construct.
* The concept of intelligence (including geek culture) is, in addition to being exceedingly vague, a social construct.
* Sports are a social construct.
* Fashion and language are also sometimes listed as social constructs, although I would contend that they are also fairly largely conventions (a convention being, in my view, the necessary effect of one alternative being used over others, and we need to communicate and wear clothes).
* Standards of attractiveness are probably social constructs (evopsych quackery notwithstanding).
All these things are constructed by society. We know this because they are not natural or imaginary, but rather the result of gradual social evolution and subject to general agreement.
One way to verify whether something is a social construct is what I’d call an anthropological check: does its expression vary throughout history and between societies? If so, it’s probably a social construct. I’m not saying this is a perfect test, but it’s certainly a good counter to the reactionary discourse where every feature of society is the best of all worlds and has existed in this form for all time (“marriage has always been between a man and a woman!”, “women have always been in charge of the domestic sphere, men of the outside world,” “people have always believed in God,” the past assumption that Western white societies were the pinnacle of civilization).
Continued in part 2.