Notes on: “Social Construction”

As I have written numerous times, and as my students can attest, I am a proponent of seeing everything as a social construction.

Such a position is easily misunderstood. I often hear: what do you mean that so-and-so is a social construction.

There are different ways to look at this, but at its core, social constructions are products of societies, times, and places. The ideas and objects that exist in our world are not products of biology, of essentialism – they were/are no inevitable developments. 

Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What addresses some of these ideas and overall, tends to object to the idea that everything is a social construction.

For example, he suggests that child abuse has always existed and is real, but the “idea of child abuse” is new and is socially constructed. This example is thought-provoking but rests on essentialism and leaves important questions unanswered, including:

  • Who is a “child”? Is this determined/altered by race, gender, age, (dis)ability? What boundaries are there before and after being a “child”? 
  • What is “abuse”? Does the definition of “abuse” depend on who is giving and/or receiving the “abuse? Does the definition of “abuse” depend on what the “abuse” is for? Does “abuse” include physical, psychological, and systemic abuse?

History teaches us that the notion of “children” is fairly new. History also teaches us that enslaved Black “children” in the United States could be sold or killed with full sanctioning from community, political, religious voices, for example.

If one still maintains that child abuse has always existed, one is asserting an ethnocentric position. 

Suggesting that only “the idea of child abuse” is socially constructed also ignores semiotics–the construction of the signs and symbols of language–and linguistic relativity/Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

When I say something is “socially constructed,” I think about my comments in this blog, where I explain that “facts” exist within specific contexts and within spectrums. Although not as common, I include even sexual attraction and sexual desire (as partly articulated in “Anthropology Rediscovers Sexuality”) and include science in the domain of items that are socially constructed.

There are different levels to what we consider “social constructions.” Some items such as mores, are more “absolutely social constructions.” In addition to being socially constructed, they are relative. Other items, such as preferences for certain foods, are social constructions and subjective. 

That humans have a body part called a “stomach” is a social construction, too. At least in regard to what we call this body part (and how we spell it and pronounce it) and that we have a specific name for it. At least in regard to that as scientific discoveries continue–if they do, for such is not enviable–our understandings will change in unpredictable ways: today’s “science” is often tomorrow’s “pseudo science.” At least in regard to how society understands the stomach.

Even evolution is a socially constructed theory (and also an essentialist theory, per se).

Society’s base of knowledge and historical memory is socially constructed. Always. The Declaration of Independence was basically forgotten for decades! It’s not inevitable that people living on the land currently called “Texas” in 100 years will “know” they have a stomach. And maybe they won’t even have a stomach–technology could come up with something better, or science may find what it considers a more accurate classification system. Knowledge must be actively and deliberately kept alive.

While seemingly “common sense” and “core ideas” to most scholars in 2018, notion of “social constructionism” officially date back only to the World War II era and notion of “relativism” only to the late 19th century. 

Saying all of this, I wonder if it might help more people understand social constructionism if we took the emphasis off “culturally/socially constructed” and created a new category, potentially one called “culturally/socially informed“? Would this help people grasp that we are not saying so-in-so is meaningless?

Biology makes it more difficult. We know ascribing anything to essentialism quickly becomes problematic. We also know, as Gloria Steinem says, we’re clearly products of both nature and nature. Teasing out biology’s role is impossible – but even the world we create influences and changes our biology.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda