What is a social construct?

June 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

The literature of identity politics and social justice, with or without capitals, is full of assertions that this or that system, conception, or object is a “social construct.”  This is nearly always claimed without defining “social construct,” though most of us have a vague idea that the term means something that lacks an objective reality independent of human social agreement.  And it’s usually used dismissively—not to deny something like gender identity or racism—but to deny that they exist independently of human thought. That is, the claim that “race is a social construct” is taken to mean that “there is no objective reality to the concept of race, which was simply created by humans” (the usual reason is to give groups power over other groups), but nevertheless race is seen and treated as real in the same way that the idea of a monarchy (see below) is treated as real.

I decided to look up various definitions of “social construct” to see if my notion was true. It turns out that, by and large, it is, and most definitions are pretty similar. Below, for example, are four definitions with links (given definitions and glosses are indented).

Oxford English Dictionary:    A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.

Merriam-Webster:  an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society. Class distinctions are a social construct.

Macmillan Dictionary: a concept or belief that is based on the collective views of a society rather than existing naturally

yourdictionary.com:   Social constructs develop within a society or group. They don’t represent objective reality but instead are meaningful only because people within the society or group accept that they have meaning. Simply put, social constructs do not have inherent meaning. The only meaning they have is the meaning given to them by people.

For example, the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys is an example of a social construct related to gender and the color of items. The collective perception that a particular color can be associated with a certain gender is not an objective representation of truth or fact. Instead, it a social convention that came to have meaning within the context of society.

So I was correct: “social constructs” are ideas or objects or notions that do not exist independently of human decision making and social agreement. They are not “real” in the sense that without social agreement about what they mean, they would have no objective reality. Or so it is claimed.

Now the term “reality”, of course, is slippery. Certainly money is real, in terms of paper currency, but the agreement that it can be used to purchase goods and has ascribed value is a social construct. Even Martian sociologists could observe this, but the value of a dollar bill would have to be ascertained by observing how it’s used. And the British monarchy is real, though it wouldn’t exist without social agreement.  I won’t go on in this vein, as it leads into psychological hinterlands where I would be criticized by some no matter what I said. I simply present the definitions I’ve seen above.

Now, here is a list of examples of “social constructs” along with my rough take on whether I think they really do adhere to the definitions above. You can find more examples here.

gender.  Gender and gender roles are multifarious, and more are devised each day. The behaviors associated with these (e.g., “genderfluid”) do describe real behaviors, but “genderfluid” as a given category seems to me a social construct.

gender roles. Same as above, though the behaviors may stem from biology. I would have trouble, for example, with the idea that being bisexual is “just” a social construct, for it does describe people who are attracted to members of both sexes. And there may be a biological basis for this.

sex. As I’ve argued at length, sex is a biological and objective reality, in nearly all cases of animals a binary category with a strict basis resting on gamete size. So while gender may be a social construct, sex, as in “biological sex”, is not.

sex roles. This is a mixture of both an objective reality and a social construct. That is, the view that men are generally attracted to women and vice versa, a feature that has an evolutionary basis, is not something agreed on by society, despite numerous exceptions like homosexuality. And some behavioral differences between the sexes, like aggression and risk-taking, are, I think, not social constructs but partly encoded in our DNA by natural selection. Other “roles”, like guys should like blue and girls pink, are clearly social constructs.

religion.  Despite the claim that people have an inborn desire to apprehend and worship divine deities or concepts, I see religion as a social construct. It may have a biological origin, as some claim (ascribing mysterious events to specific causes), but religion in the form we know it is clearly something devised by humans. I also don’t think that if we wiped out all religious sentiment from the planet, it would return with nearly the ubiquity it has today. We simply know too much about what makes things happen, and we still have no evidence for gods.

social class system.  It’s an objective fact that some people are smarter than others and some make more money than others. But the idea that this makes some people superior to others is clearly a social construct, and a maladaptive one. Indian castes are similar, but have been genetically separated for so long via historical origins as well as prohibitions on intermarriage that now there are correlations between one’s caste and one’s genes.

monarchy. A social construct and, I think, another maladaptive one.

marriage. A social construct; many societies don’t have marriage in the way we know it. The rules, rituals, and laws about marriage have all been made up by society.

countries. Clearly social constructs based on human history and either warfare or general agreement among different groups of people.

money (see above).

biological species. Not a social construct in general, but a reality existing independent of humans, most obvious in sexually reproducing animals but also in many plants (animals, after all, chose to mate with members of their own species, and that choice has nothing to do with human consensus). For a full-scale justification of species as real groups, independent of human conception, see Chapter 1 of my book with Allen Orr, Speciation.

disability. Another slippery one. Clearly if someone has lost their sight or their limbs, they are not as “able” to do some stuff than people who are relatively intact, though they may develop compensatory skills (like more acute hearing in the deaf) that make them “super able” in other ways. Ergo the term “differently abled.” In general the idea that people with such losses should have interventions to compensate for them and enable them to participate more fully in society, and should have such interventions, is both an objective reality (e.g., for the blind) but also a social convention (our moral view that the disabled deserve to be accommodated).

I should add here that I see morality is perhaps the most prominent social construct, for while it’s a fact that societies have moral systems, the specific actions viewed as “good” or “bad” have no objective justification or even a label independent of human agreement.

race. This is the most hot-button of the topics, so I’ve saved it for last. Clearly race is a “social construct” if by the term you mean that “races are absolutely distinguishable groups of individuals with substantial and diagnostic genetic differences.”  The old Carleton Coon-ian races of “Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Capoids, Congoids, and Australoids” have gone down the drain.

On the other hand, multi-site genetic analysis shows, in general, that humans do fall into groups largely distinguishable from their DNA, though those groups are overlapping and show gene mixing, so that many individuals cannot be said to fall into a given group. But the grouping of humans can, with fair accuracy, give an idea of someone’s geographic origins and ethnicity, because it reflects an ancient geographic separation of populations that led to their genetic differentiation. As we know, the amount of diversity within any given group exceeds the diversity between groups, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use multiple segments of DNA, combined, to diagnose someone’s ancestry and ethnicity.

Multilocus groupings of humans, for example, show that they can be divided into various fairly distinct genetic clusters, ranging from 4-7, and which correspond roughly to areas where humans were genetically isolated (Africa, Oceania, East Asia, the Americas, etc.)  In the U.S., multi-site cluster analysis identifies four clusters, corresponding to whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and East Asians (Chinese and Japanese). Further, when you look at someone’s genetic profile and put it into one of those four clusters, and then ask them, without that knowledge, what their self-identified “race” is, the match between genetics and self-identified “race” is remarkable. As the paper of Tang et al. notes:

“Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity.”

I won’t cite other studies showing that you can identify the location of one’s genetic ancestors with remarkable accuracy. The point is that this correspondence between genes and ancestry, and between phenotype (correlated with ancestry) and genes means that “race”, while a loaded term—I use “ethnic groups” as a substitute—has some basis in biological reality and therefore is not a social construct. If the concept of “race” (or “ethnicity”, as I prefer to say) were purely an agreement of people within society having nothing to do with objective reality, you wouldn’t see the correspondence between how one identifies themselves and the code in their DNA. I hasten to add that these biological identifiers of races say nothing about hierarchies, but they are biologically and evolutionarily meaningful.

All this discussion goes to show several things. First, the concept of a “social construct” is bandied about widely, but often used either inaccurately or is not defined at all. Some things seen as social constructs, like sex and race—or species, for that matter, as some misguided biologists have asserted that species in nature are purely human-defined segments of a biological continuum—actually have an objective reality independent of human consensus. Others, like a monarchy or Mormonism, are purely the results of a human consensus. Thus you need to explain what you mean when you claim that something is a “social construct”, and explain why that concept has no objective reality but is purely the result of social agreement.

62 thoughts on “What is a social construct?

  1. Excellent question.

    Some things come to mind :


    … begging the question, what is _not_ a “social construct”?

    Aside : the notion that some thing is “political” seems similar. If some important problem arose, such as a pandemic, how could that _not_ be “political”?

    1. … begging the question, what is _not_ a “social construct”?

      I would not call the sun a social construct. I am not talking about the name or the concept of a star, but the existence of the object we call the sun. Mount Everest and the Pacific Ocean also come to mind 🙂 In the end, I think we will encounter the old question of to what extent the reality of objects (and their properties) are a matter of perception.

      Also, my subjective experience, my awareness, I would not call a social construct. It seems that the fact that I experience anything at all is independent of society.

      Note that I am trying to use the term ‘social construct’ in a useful way. That is, I want to avoid calling everything a social construct, because then I would need another term to refer to the distinctions that I think exist.

      1. And the airspeed of a laden swallow — African or European.

        Or the example Sam Harris gives of a real fact that is (practically) un-knowable: The number of birds currently in flight around the earth.

      2. Interesting thoughts – but what precisely demarcates “the sun” from being a product of the thoughts and knowledge born from society? I think the thing in the sky every day has been described as different things, depending on which society is inculcating the ideas.

        The Enlightenment – social construct or not? The Enlightenment was born in part from the Royal Society, and directly lead to new medicines, that saved people in society. Does that mean medicine is a social construct?

        Obviously I’m thinking this out on the spot – not asserting or concluding anything. Where is the boundary for the definition, and are we expecting too much from it?

        1. I think the thing in the sky every day has been described as different things, depending on which society is inculcating the ideas.

          Yes. But to describe it, they all had to perceive it. I mean that ‘the thing in the sky every day’ that I perceive exists ‘inherently or naturally’ as is defined in the Oxford dictionary. I think the other dictionaries have similar definitions.

          I recognize a difference between a basic, albeit crude, perception of things on the one hand and our thoughts and theories about them on the other. This is why I recognized some objects as not being social constructs.

          But I am not as inclined to attempt to put everything into one class or the other. So whether the Enlightenment or medicine are social constructs seem less significant to me. I would describe them in faithful terms but am less inclined to classify them.

          It looks like ‘social construct’ itself is a social construct 🙂

  2. Certainly money is real,

    Coins and notes are real – I can, and have, examined them under my petrological microscope and various wavelengths of visible and ultraviolet light. If there were a numismatist equivalent of Stanley Gibbons, you could go there and buy three kilos of unsorted non-Empire coins.
    “Money”, on the other hand, I’m much less sure of.
    I would rather expect the social anthropologists (Mr Jeans and Co.) to have a fairly precise and meaningful definition – probably ignored by the more recent band-waggoneers – since they made some effort to describe the social constructs and activities of societies from the outside.

    1. Indeed, bimetallism and fiat currency are social constructs, although silver, gold, and paper have an objective, material reality.

      1. Money is the classic (and probably least controversial) example. The social construction is about the “moneyness” of money of having a value that can be used to buy things. The material items that represent this value are not deemed socially constructed, for they are obviously what is conventionally seen as “real”.

        1. This appears to me that “social construct” is practically the same as a “social norm”.

    2. As Prof Ceiling Cat notes,

      Even Martian sociologists could observe this, but the value of a dollar bill would have to be ascertained by observing how it’s used.

      It wouldn’t take them long to figure out the broad outlines of how money works. Money (not just gold and paper) is real, and you don’t have to be from the culture that invented it to see it.

  3. Is race sufficiently “real” to be something more than a social construct?

    Three quotes from expert bodies in an article by Guy P Harrison in Skeptic magazine (vol. 25, no. 3):

    “All living humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical” National Genome Research Institute

    “Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories” The American Society of Human Genetics

    “Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters” The American association of Physical Anthropologists

    1. The key word in those quotes is “distinct”. Races are indeed not “distinct”, since all humans are the same species, and so human groups interbreed, all such groupings are fuzzy-edged. Nevertheless, humans today do indeed show (fuzzy-edged) shared-ancestry branching patterns.

      It may be that, over time, ease of long-distance travel means the shared-ancestry branching pattern gets blurred out to homogeneity. But it is still visible today.

      1. It may be that, over time, ease of long-distance travel means the shared-ancestry branching pattern gets blurred out to homogeneity.

        Fear of such so-called “mongrelization” of the races has always been the primary motivating factor behind the Ku Klux Klan and others of their white-supremacist ilk in the US.

    2. From the little I understand of the matter, even small fractions (say 0.01% or less variation between humans) still translates into hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of genetic sites that can vary, because the human genome is pretty big. So there is plenty of variation to go about, even if it is only a tiny fraction of the overall human genome.* Now it also appears to be the case that in humans, this genetic variation is spread out in a pattern geneticists call “isolation by distance”, ie the more geographically distant two humans are, the more the tiny bits of the human genome that vary are different from one another (on average). So, as far as I know, although geneticists can map the origin of a human pretty well to a geographic location, and also do group them in various ways, the pattern in human genetic variation does not really lent itself to division into discrete groups.

      *I think I should also caution here that *a lot* of this variation is also in sites that have no influence on human phenotype. A lot of the variation geneticists use to study human genetic diversity are in sites that are neutral and have a high mutation rate, because these make convenient markers (for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsatellite)

    3. Clearly race is a real phenomenon. Everyone recognizes it. The difference is recognizable across races and cultures. It is, apparently, the only thing worth considering about other humans, according to CRT.

      The data on self identification and gene cluster correspondence (Tang paper) is hard to counter. People agree about the genetic origins of their race, even if they are unaware of them.

      Race affects (or is defined by) the features of humans that we are most attuned to, that we focus in on most closely in our social interactions: Facial features, eyes, hair, skin. (This seems, to me, to be an indication of sexual selection.)

      Now, the ranking of races is a social construct. Taboos on interracial mating/marriage are social constructs. Assigning value to race membership is a social construct.

      Sure, we are all the same species, so we share a huge amount of our genes across the species. This is the expected result. It does not counter the points above.

      1. “Clearly race is a real phenomenon …”.

        I agree, in that there are clear macroscopic differences between me and almost any given single person whose ancestors for the last 20 generations have all lived in, say, Tahiti. Most such differences exist for genetic reasons. But we do certainly have a common ancestor less than about 100 generations back, likely much less.

        “…genetic origins of their race…”

        But it doesn’t follow logically that there is necessarily a real thing called a collection of races, one of which most any human is a member. And I think there definitely isn’t. I’m not asserting that your wording implies that you do think there is, but it does go in that direction.

    4. And humans share 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, but I have no trouble telling the difference. It only goes to show that a small fraction of DNA can make a big difference.

      Humans can easily be divided into nearly distinct clusters. There is some interbreeding, but as the experiments mentioned in the original post show, somebody can look at your DNA and predict, with ~99.9% accuracy, your racial self-identification. That demonstrates that the racial categories used for self-identification map to physical, genetic differences.

      1. “Humans can easily be divided into nearly distinct clusters.”

        I think NO–not easily–never accurately–but almost always unfortunately.

    5. The first quote (99.9%) has no context. We doubtless share a great deal of genetic material with horses and lizards, not to mention apes.

      Coel brings up “distinct” as a key modifier in the second and third quotes. But the primary definition of distinct in my dictionary is “Recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type”.
      If you present me with a hundred people of Japanese, Chinese, or Korean ancestry, a hundred people of equatorial African ancestry, And 100 people of Norse ancestry, It would be fairly trivial to sort them into their three primary groups.
      They are recognizably different.
      A White child, adopted and raised by Japanese parents in Japan, will always be White. That child may well grow up speaking only Japanese and practicing Shintoism, but will always, immutably, be a Caucasian. No amount of wishing or time spent practicing Kendo will turn that kid even slightly Yamato.
      This from personal experience.

      It is a central contradiction in woke philosophy is that race and sex differences are either trivial and possibly imaginary, or the prime and immutable characteristic that defines a person. All depending on what advantage is to be gained in a given situation.

  4. The claim that race is entirely a social construct amounts to virtue signalling (“I’m so anti-racist that I’ll deny that races even exist!”). The idea is that if there is no biological reality at all underpinning races, then there cannot be anything other than racism producing different group-mean outcomes.

    1. “The idea is that if there is no biological reality at all underpinning races, then there cannot be anything other than racism producing different group-mean outcomes.”

      The Woke’s ..if..then.. logic is pathetically weak here. But the truth is that there is biological underpinning to the differences between almost any two people with pretty small differing ancestries. But “outcomes” related to IQ and many other competencies are very far from principally genetic.

      Racism is clearly there, much stronger still in US than I thought 6 years ago. But races themselves are a very weak concept, virtually non-existent scientifically. It is hard to believe that racism is not by far the main reason for economic differences between USians, and in many other countries as well.

  5. So maybe I am understanding this term better and also not that sure it is something I would use much. Makes sense that sex is not a social construct because it is an objective thing determined by science – not a group of people. I think money is the same, however it’s worth is determined by many things and can be variable. Something like bit coins in the definition of money would be more of a social construct because it is only used by certain people and not fully established as a currency by all. It’s value is even more mysterious because it takes loads of computer work to even figure out what the value is at any given time.

  6. I like MacMillan’s definition best: “a concept or belief that is based on the collective views of a society rather than existing naturally.” It is often used to imply a few things about the construct:

    1. It is completely made up and, therefore, reflects the beliefs and biases of those that created it. This deliberately ignores dependencies on other constructs, nature, and the human condition.

    2. Since declaring it a social construct frees it from its links to ideas that are relatively unchangeable, or universally agreed upon, the construct in question can be readily and easily replaced by a new one, one that the declarer prefers. This is often the main objective behind declaring something a social construct.

    In short, it is often an intellectual pry bar wielded by those who would like to replace a given “social construct”.

  7. I have come around, with some considerable kicking and thrashing, to accept that “sex” is both an objective reality and a social construct. And which one it is depends on context. Biological sex is of course an objective reality that is defined by gonadal tissue. Males make sperm. Females make eggs. End of story. The existence of true hermaphrodites is not sufficient to upset that apple cart. The claims of some activists that sex is only a social construct are simply wrong here. The truth of biological sex has not changed one bit just because they wish it to be so.
    Meanwhile language has evolved around us, and
    despite us, and the term is now also used as a social construct. Here, ones’ sex is what one identifies as, and it may not be in concordance with biological sex. Sex-as social-construct is also what other people expect about your sex based on how you look. The word is here has become rather muddled with “gender”, as far as I can tell. I’ve come around to accepting that this more recent use of the word “sex” must be accepted since there is no use fighting the evolution of language.

    Maybe this is an example of a messy birth of a new homonym? I am not sure if homonym is the proper term for what is happening, though.

    1. I think that as biologists we have to hold the line according to the meaning of sex as held by biologists. If we say that “gender and sex are both social constructs,” then we get stuff like the Society for the Study of Evolution proclaiming that “sex is not a binary”. In other words, the conflation of these words confuses people about the real world of biology.

      1. I understand. But they are wrong in both of our outlines. They are wrong from your standpoint, clearly, but they are still wrong from my perspective as well – in that that they seemed to declare that sex was entirely a social construct.
        There are other biological terms that have broadened their meaning to be used outside of strict biology. Cell. Mouse. …

    2. Feminists will also want to hold the dividing line between “sex” and “gender,” because women have historically been discriminated against on the basis of sex, through the means of gender (“women are submissive and nurturing; men are bold leaders who need the nurturing.”) Language is often used as a means of control, in that if you cannot name a problem, you’ve lost the ability to address it.

      Many women see the socially constructed tendency to blur “sex” and “gender” as a power play for dominance, not a gradual evolution of language.

    3. Mostly irrelevant here, but the word ‘sex’ has just in my lifetime got yet another meaning, likely as a result of people who think Jesus might send them to hell if they were to actually articulate the phrase ‘sexual intercourse’ or the word ‘fucking’.

      And then there was the Parisian who wondered whether the uptight USian tourist was looking for somewhere to sleep when he asked for the restroom.

  8. I think European-American would be better than “white”.

    African American is naturally distinguishable from European-American, but racism is a social construct. Slavery, Jim Crow, employment discrimination on the basis of ethnicity are socially constructed.

    1. I think this is the sense in which money as a social construct has interesting similarities to race as a social construct. As Aidan@2 says, cash has a physical reality: paper, coins, metal ingots, giant disks of stone, electrons on a bank computer. But the meaning of cash and its value are socially constructed, and people have to agree as part of a social contract about who owns that giant stone disk and how much it is worth, otherwise it’s just a rock.

      1. To finish the thought: races also exist in the sense that inclusion of an individual in an ethnic group can be predicted from genetic variation. That’s an objective reality. But the meaning of races and the value of identifying with one or another race is agreed on by people in a social context. Sorry for the disjointed posts.

        1. “…can be predicted…”

          But correctly? Presumably that’s what you meant to say.

          If that’s even meaningful, you know exactly what the ethnic group is, with a genetic definition and a macroscopic observational one. And so you can observe the correctness or otherwise of your prediction. But the ‘exactly’ previous is probably nonsense if it implies every reasonable person has exactly the same defined ethnic groups. Could you gave exactly what genetic facts define the so-called black race? I’d be interested to hear them.

          The whole thing is blowing smoke IMO, and a waste of energy, quite likely a very counterproductive one as engaged in by people all over the world who know even less than me about the details of the phrase “genetic variation”, and that’s not very much.

          I’m no fan of the Woke or other ‘social constructivists’. And they’re full of shit on race as well as all sorts of other things. But their resulting sentiments concerning the evil of racism are to me the one place where they have mostly got it right as a sentiment. That does not contradict saying their suggested solutions are mostly worse than useless.

  9. Language is an interesting case – languages are socially transmitted and mutated but the anatomical and neurological apparatus has to provide the scaffolding with a evolutionary feedback loop possibly.

    I learned that people distinguish between sex, which is biological, and gender, which is a cultural response to the biological (mostly) binary sex; so sex and gender would not be completely synonymous in that sense.

  10. On the one hand, social constructionism is trivially true, since all social institutions, all social organizations, all social kinds, all social conventions, all social contracts, all social customs, all social rules, all social laws, all social facts, and all conceptual or linguistic representations of social or nonsocial reality are “socially constructed” in the simple sense of being man-made.
    On the other hand, social constructionism is nontrivially false if it isn’t restricted to social or cultural reality and becomes “omniconstructionism” about reality as a whole, claiming that nothing is socially unconstructed, that there aren’t any objectively natural entities or natural kinds of entities.

  11. Money is not real. Money itself is a social construct. You believe that paper currency has value, but it is a belief that you share with other people.

    1. Coins and paper bills are real.

      The value we assign them (including the value of precious metals (precious!)) is a social construct.

      Race is a reality. The ranking of races and racism are social constructs.

      1. Coins and paper bills are real. But if people do not believe that they are money, they are not money, so them being money is a social construct.

  12. Social constructs are also social facts – they influence not only the “discourse” but also physical reality. Nations are “imagined communities”, yet nationalism has cost countless lives. Identities are also social constructs, shaped by certain narratives, reshaped in individual minds, with different aspects being salient in different contexts. Yet identity politics has real world effects.

    In my opinion few social constructs are absolutely free-floating – most do have certain elements based in observable reality. Nations, for example, were often socially constructed based on what was seen as a common history, language or culture. While this often included distortion, rewriting or the construction of certain outgroups, it could not have happened without a true core.

    Deconstructing such concepts can be a very worthy cause, but only if one assumes that some constructs are “better” than others – either because the describe observable reality better, or because they do, e.g., cause less violence and increase well-being. Most ideologies (-isms) can be deconstructed academically very easily – making sure they are also deconstructed “out there”, where real people are still affected by racism, nationalism, religious identities and so on, is the much harder part.

    If gender is purely a social construct, constructing it as a male/ female dichotomy is as valid as assuming there are many different, fluid gender identities. If you wish to argue that this is untrue, you have to show that your own construct is better describing reality.

  13. Several weeks ago, this website featured our host’s well-informed critique of the tendentious, wokely fashionable doctrine that “white supremacism” is deeply embedded in the entire field of Human Genetics. I recommended this essay (with a link) to my old university department, which resulted in anonymous complaints, a DEI Committee meeting, its consultation with a Dean, and an official condemnation of Jerry Coyne’s essay for the “harm” it did to imaginary victims. This episode was merely a comical version of many more serious ones, a small fraction of which have been publicized.

    Therefore, I nominate “harm” and “offense” for the list of social constructs. They once had a certain amount of reality independent of language use—but incessant woke misuse have transformed them both: first to the level of social constructs, then into buzzwords, and by now into jokes.

  14. The original idea of “social construction of reality” was by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman. The work is still considered a classic in social science literature and is available for order on Amazon. I agree that people use the term carelessly and also sometimes confuse the concept of “social construction” with “humanly devised institution”. There is some overlap, but they are not synonymous, though people tend to use them interchangeably. SCR literature also originates in a particular view of social theory strongly influenced by symbolic interactionism and carries with it a generally constructivist epistemology. I personally think that the terms “transitive” and “intransitive” are better terms to use, as they have a clearer meaning. Gravity is intransitive, using fiat currency is transitive.

  15. I would think that any practice that will essentially always develop in human societies could not be a real social construct.
    If we shipped a bunch of human embryos to earth’s uninhabited twin, and had robots provide the absolute minimum care for their survival, future observation of them would certainly reveal many similarities and differences from our own society.
    Of course, it would be more revealing to duplicate the exercise as many times as possible, to exclude the unexpected exceptions.
    I think we would observe defined gender roles developing almost immediately in those experiments. It is pretty unlikely that we will find that they have chosen women to primarily fulfill the roles where more strength and stamina increases the likelihood of survival. Conversely, as men will not be giving birth to and nursing children, it is unlikely that men will be given the role of caring for babies and very young children.
    Some of the things you mentioned are solutions to universal problems. Marriage would seem to be one of those. Marriage as we know it might not be the optimal solution, but it provides rules which help avoid consanguinity and helps avoid societal disruption from people fighting over mates.
    If you are living in small family groups, which is a common thing, it is better to formalize a peaceful process for the exchange of mates with neighboring bands than it would be to just attack them and seize possible mates through violence.

  16. I’ve observed what I call gender fluidity in cows, chickens and goats and have seen it as natural. And one buck who was very much into specie fluidity (he and a large bull had an association that seemed unusual to me for several years.). I have often thought that some gender rights activists and their opponents need to live in a barn yard a few months.

    My late husband had to several times make gender decisions at human births while practicing pediatric urology. I am grateful he quit practicing before gender identity became so politicized. He had a firm set of criteria on which to base his decisions and got little to no push-back from parents. I fear today it is much different and I don’t know if it is a change for the better.

  17. In Bruissels, at least until quite recently, pink was for boys and light blue for girls. Eg in the St Peters Hospital (Hopital St Pierre) one of the biggest Hospitals in Brussels , in paediatrics the boys had pink files and the girls blue ones. With the heavy weight of American culture, I’m not sure this still is the case, but it illustrates nicely that pink for girls and blue for boys is a social construct.
    AFAIK in China the boys’ colour is red.

  18. “But the idea that this makes some people superior to others is clearly a social construct, and a maladaptive one” It certainly is a social construct, and it may be wrong and even evil (I do think so), but I do not understand how it is maladaptive. Many societies from ancient Athens (not to mention Sparta) to China, Japan, India or the British Empire were highly stratified societies (in fact probably all societies with division of labour and/or slavery and/or military power). Yet many of these societies persisted for pretty long and made progress from the ‘savage’ state. Maladaptive regarding what exactly?

  19. Maladaptive regarding human well being. Ancient Athens, for example, was ridden with slavery. Is it adaptive for the slaves to be regarded as possessions and treated poorly. Stratification is maladaptive in that it discourages notions of moral equality and civil treatment.

    1. I get your point, still, I would rather call it (ascribing different value to different classes) wrong, immoral or evil, rather than ‘maladaptive’. Not only did these societies do well, but maybe even the slaves were better off in eg. reproductive terms.
      I mean, we keep sheep and cattle to eat (and some other things), yet in reproductive success they do well, they have replaced for a large part the population of naturally occurring herbivores.

      My point is that bands of hunter gatherers are quite equal and ‘democratic, the slightly larger ones become more moralistic (more moralistic beliefs can keep the peace between males not directly related), the larger a society becomes, especially with agriculture and division of labour, more stratified it becomes and can support religious and specialised warrior classes. We are talking now large societies of hundreds of thousands, and they can grow even larger. I suspect that only in those stratified societies something like philosophers and scientists can arise. And they push in turn, in very large societies (millions) , for equality and things like human rights. AFAIK here is no society that was not stratified that gave rise to a philosophy of equality and freedom, and to science. (I know all this is very much summarised, but you get the gist).

  20. I agree that marriage is a social construct but one could argue that it is rooted in our species bias toward monogamy. Is monogamy a social construct? Probably since there are competing options (e.g. polyamory), however both marriage and monogamy depend on the reality of biological sex (or so I’m told). It seems to me that social constructs tend to build off of objective realities and tend to blend and mix pretty tightly in human minds.

    1. It seems a distinction between “social” and “family” is necessary – monogamous families tend to produce monogamous families. Those families operate within the larger society – a society with tendencies toward, e.g. monogamy.

  21. I am dubious about social constructionism, and also adjacent areas of philosophy. These ideas originate in the 1960s (or are even older) when, demonstrably, nobody had a clue. Legend has it, that Marvin Minsky asked students to write a program over the summer to identify objects seen by a camera. It took merely some 60 years to get anywhere close.

    Language philosophy, and then cognitive science made advances circa from the 1970s onwards, and you can tell that social sciences and philosophy are slow to take note. They went along with the linguistic turn and then stopped there, apparently. Why is this relevant for a theory of social construction?

    There are many cases where the social construction is uncontroversial and trivial by now. For example, the purchasing power of money, i.e. what makes money money, is a standard example of social construction. The coins, the printed paper or plastic cards with embedded chips are conventionally real, yet the special quality of money comes from a social system. This becomes immediately obvious when e.g. wars or crisis destroy a currency and suddenly the money (rather, the paper) is only good to heat the oven.

    But what exactly do we mean by “coins”. Are coins real? We can say that one particular coin is real, for instance one in your wallet right now. And so when we can agree that this coin is real, and there are other such (analogically similar) objects, then we can agree that “coins” as a set are real. But not so fast.

    Suppose we put the coin onto train track, melt it in forge, and so on. Also, many things come into existence gradually. When, exactly, is some lump of metal a coin proper (“real”) and when does it stop being a coin? Such problems would move a thing in and out of a category. But continua and fuzzy outlines of a category over which people can argue, and which necessitate definitions do not make a thing a social construction, but this is often used that way. Take, for instance, the “social construction of illness” (this appears to be a whole genre of social constructionism “theory”).

    But when illnesses are social constructions, then mountains would be too. And that’s not at all the same principle applied here as it is for money. The humanities seem to accept at least there are “weak” social constructions (illnesses and the “Atlantic Ocean”) and strong ones, e.g. money, and that argument seems to follow a similar line as weak and strong linguistic relativity. Seeing that strong linguistic relativity is hokum, we should see “weak” social constructions as nonsense.

    Such things as so-called “human races” are yet more complicated. They show another related problem, namely a sort of naturalistic fallacy where when something is supposedly “real” it should be taken more seriously. But the features that are salient for the making of a category might be irrelevant, regardless of whether these features are real.

    Also, racial category systems are numerous. When we’re taking about “races” the referent are various conceptions that people have or had historically, not one particular system, and this category of “race systems” is held together by family resemblance. No doubt, geneticist could find a purpose in some genetic taxonomy of humans, and that taxonomy is essential like naming some water “Atlantic Ocean”. However, it doesn’t make it meaningful for everyone else, nor has this taxonomy much to do with so-called “races” in a non-technical sense or how a particular racist uses them. One good reason to reject such ideas.

  22. I was researching Qatar for one of my articles about the place: it turns out even the tiny Qatari population (250K) can be divided up among 3 slightly separate genetic groups (one more Iranian, one Omani, I forget the other) if you look back in time.

    Similarly, the Japanese “race” – which is quite distinct from its neighbors has antecedents from three different genetic contributors over history.

    hahahaha- I just thought: And some people believe “Adam and Eve” were actual living people. Goodness.


  23. “Certainly money is real, in terms of paper currency”

    The well known Sorites Paradox makes clear why all communication is socially constructed; we use vague abstractions all the time; only some of these vague abstractions refer to something made of atoms and molecules (heaps, chairs, cats); some don’t (God’s, life after death, value of money, American dream), some are useful (money, borders) some aren’t (cats).

    A coin is just an artifact to represent the value of money. You will find most of your money is represented as a collection of electrical voltages or current pulses or the electrical state of a flip-flop circuits somewhere in computer storage.

    Normally people agree that things made of atoms and molecules are real, all the rest seems a matter of taste.

  24. I don’t see the “social construct” property as binary. Practically everything involving humans has a socially constructed component and a non-socially-constructed component. For example, there are aspects of money that are socially constructed but also aspects that are real (eg, bills and coins, human desire for ownership and trade).

    So this leaves me wondering about the purpose of labelling something a social construct. The label has some value but mostly it means someone wants to change something. By declaring something a social construct, they are claiming that it can be changed and that they want to change it. If they were being honest about it, they would state the desired change directly. By labelling it a social construct, they are trying to give the desired change a respectability that it may not deserve. It’s a pre-softening phase where the proponents of some change declare that it was only decided by humans in the first place and, therefore, change is easy.

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