Social Construction

As part of my class preparation, I often write essays about the topics I plan to lecture on. I don’t read them directly in class, but it helps me get my thoughts together to write out what I want to talk about. This is the essay I wrote for my upcoming lecture on “social construction”.

Human beings are not passive observers of the world around us, but are active participants in it. Our perception of the world is not merely the objective recording and labeling of things “out there”, but instead the product of a complex and often invisible interaction between our needs at the moment, our culture, our personal history, our creativity, our class background, our educational achievements, our desires and our fears. What we see (or hear, or understand, or experience in any way) is not the “raw” stuff of reality but reality as processed by our minds. The categories that we put things into – gender, race, class, and so on – do not exist “out there” in the world, but are instead ways of organizing the vast number of stimuli our brains receive into some sense of order, some state that will allow us to act on and in the world.

The process of organizing, categorizing, and comprehending the world we live in is known to social scientists and philosophers as “social construction”. Social constructions emerge from our collective attempts to understand reality, and exist in society by virtue of conventions – the collective “agreement” that a particular social construction is not only the best but the right way to represent the world.

Games are a clear example of social constructions. Consider chess: without conventions – the rules we all agree to play by – chess simply does not exist. It is a piece of wood and a bunch of carved pieces. It is our agreement that the figure that resembles a horse should occupy a specific starting position on the board and should be allowed to move two spaces in any direction and then one space perpendicular to the initial direction, jumping over other pieces in its way, that constitutes the carving as “a knight” and gives it meaning. Likewise with all the other pieces: we agree that this piece shall be called “a pawn” and move one way and that piece “a bishop” and shall move a different way. The rules impose limits, but they also impose possibilities; without the rules, the pieces can move any way you want – up, down, thrown across a room, dropped out of a window, hidden behind a book – but their movement has no meaning, because there is no game to “mean” in.

Social scientists describe the conventions that make social living possible in the same way. We break the world up into manageable “chunks” by categorizing the objects and people in it. For instance, we commonly think of objects as animal, vegetable, or mineral. This is a meaningful distinction for most of us, although for scientists, it is not useful enough. For the working biologist, there are plants and animals (technically Animalia and Plantae), but also Monera (prokaryotic bacterium), Protista (slime molds and such), and Fungi. Many scientists now make use of two Superkingdoms, Prokaryota and Eukaryota. The distinctions that matter to biologists, though, rarely matter to us in our everyday lives – and may not matter to members of cultures different than ours, or people with different goals than our own. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine author, imagined a classification scheme that he ascribed to an (invented) Chinese encyclopedia, in which animals were categorized as follows:

  1. belonging to the Emperor
  2. embalmed
  3. tame
  4. sucking pigs
  5. sirens
  6. fabulous
  7. stray dogs
  8. included in the present classification
  9. frenzied
  10. innumerable
  11. drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  12. et cetera
  13. having just broken the water picture
  14. that from a long way off look like flies

We can recognize each of these categories as valid in and of itself (well, most of them…) “tame animals” or “embalmed animals” seem like reasonable enough distinctions. But Borges’ classification seems absurd to us because it simply does not offer us enough meaningful information about the differences, and similarities, between them. Of course “sucking pigs” are different from “stray dogs”, but so what? Still, there’s no objective reason to reject Borges’ categories out of hand – someone else might look at our own classification of animals, plants, and minerals and also ask, “So what?”

Social constructions are not just categories imposed on the world, however; as the name suggests, they “construct” – they make – the world. Consider sex, for instance. No, not that kind of sex – the biological sex of a newborn child. We are accustomed to thinking about the sex of an infant as a given fact: it’s either a boy or a girl. Yet according to research by Anne Fausto-Sterling, 1 out of every 100 live births are intersexed in some way – they have ambigious genitalia, external genitalia different from those predicted by the presence of an “X” or “Y” chromosone, or extra “X” or “Y” chromosomes. Simply put, about 1% of us are born neither clearly “male” nor clearly “female”. And yet far fewer than 1% of the people you meet are neither male nor female; by and large, we rarely meet anyone who we do not consider – and, more importantly, who does not consider him- or herself – clearly male or female. Ambiguously sexed infants are generally assigned to either one or the other sex, often with the use of reconstructive surgery (although, given the lack of a “proper” sex to “go back to”, the “re-” is a little misplaced; we may as well call it “constructive surgery”), using criteria that by any standard are arbitrary and even crude. “It’s easier to poke a hole than to build a pole.”

If something as seemingly apparent as biological sex can be arbitrary and based on criteria that have little or nothing to do with a person’s actual biology, how much moreso must “gender”, the behaviors and personality characteristics associated with sex, be? Although in our species there is some small amount of average physical difference between men and women, there is not nearly enough variation to account for either the different expectations of men and women within any given society, nor for the variation between expectations of either gender in different societies. Anthropologists often find that what is considered an ideal woman in one society may well consist of characteristics associated with women in another, and vice versa. Even when it comes to physical strength, many women in our society best many men – and yet we divide participants in sports and other activities where physical strength is important not by physical ability but by gender.

Race is another biological “fact” that is socially constructed – the way we categorize people has little to do with underlying biological difference, and much to do with the history and structure of a given society. Humans are among the least diverse of mammal species, and yet scientists not so long ago argued over whether there were 35 or 50 races of humans. Today, we generally accept a division of the world’s people into 4 races: black, white, Asian, and Native American. Some lump Asians and Native Americans together; others all non-Africans (and some Africans). These distinctions may have some validity when tracing ancestries (although most of us are so mixed that the utility of even simple distinctions becomes questionable) but have little utility for just about anything else. And yet we behave as if these distinctions were not only very real but very meaningful – and they are.

Class is not usually considered a biological reality (although there are some who feel that a high position in society represents a very real, innate superiority), but rather an economic one. But class correlates only superficially to wealth. Someone who rises from poverty to amass great riches may find it exceedingly hard to fit in upper-crust society; likewise, someone who loses their fortune and is forced into abject poverty may find a distinct lack of acceptance from their fellow poor. Things like the way you dress, the art you enjoy, the kind of cars that appeal to you, the music you listen to, the food you eat, and the way you talk and carry yourself say much, much more about your class than how much money is in your wallet.

Now, a common mistake is to assume that when something is described as “socially constructed” that the speaker is saying it doesn’t exist, that it’s not really real. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our social interactions, our economic status, our lives, even our very selves are profoundly shaped by the way sex, race, class, and gender are constructed in our societies. The conventions surrounding these categories not only limit our actions (“that’s not ladylike!”; “you have no class”) but make them possible. We act in the world as men (or women), whites (or blacks, or Asians, or…), working class (or middle or upper class) agents, constructing our actions and our selves from the “material” our society provides. And, in fact, for all their power in society, none of these categories is beyond challenge – norms change (people change them), but even more importantly, people act “outside the lines” all the time. Transvestites, actors, light-skinned blacks or dark-skinned whites, gays and lesbians, inter-racial partners, and many, many others – including, in the end, most of us at one time or another – may act out roles different from those prescribed by society, although often the cost is high. But even when we act in ways that “break the rules”, the rules give our transgressions meaning.

If we accept that we live in a world that is socially constructed, then our constructions are more real than reality – in fact, they are our reality. They are the world imbued with meaning by us, the world in which we dwell. This can be hard for us to accept, as we’re accustomed to thinking of the real and the imagined as two very different categories. Alas, those categories are, of course, socially constructed.

Work Cited

Jorge Luis Borges.

1969. The Book of Imaginary Beings. New York: Avon Books.

Anne Fausto-Sterling

2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

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