What “Socially Constructed” Really Means

We’ve all heard the term “socially constructed.” It usually comes up like this: “well you know [so-and-so] is just a social construct anyway.”

The giveaway, of course, is the word “just.” Folks who use the term this way are trying to tell you, in a fancy way, that they regard the category under discussion as some combination of arbitrary, artificially (which is to say, inappropriately) imposed, invented, hypothetical, fictitious (which tells you how little they think of literature) or just outrightly false.

Race, gender, sexuality, all get tossed into the intellectual meat grinder (instead of salad spinner) this way. Of course, nobody really howls until science gets tossed in there.

What, science? Holy Science?

A Rascally Aside
Folks who know me know I’m no Luddite. I rely on science every day, and frankly wish I knew a lot more about it. What I’m against is scientism, the unquestioned belief in the superiority of natural scientific claims to truth over all others, such as those that come from the humanities.

In a scientistic culture, we do an awful lot of pretending there’s only one form of truth. What’s funny is we do so understanding perfectly well that truth works differently (or means qualitatively different things) in different fields such as math, the natural sciences, literature, history, and the arts.

We know, for example, the difference between telling the truth, being true to oneself (or another) and a true work of art. We know intuitively there’s a difference between factual, literary, mythological, psychological, existential, and spiritual truth.

If you’re of the opinion that the arts and humanities provide a perfectly legitimate form of truth, just not the same one you find on the chalkboard or in the laboratory, then you’re with me. If so, you may also think it’s a cheap way for disciplines (or people) to puff themselves up by bringing others down. In this way I think saying things like “we scientists have access to the truth, unlike those Chaucer scholars,” or “when has the study of philosophy ever cured anyone of malaria?” are just silly examples of scientism.

In short, I think we can be scientists as well as scholars. It follows that I don’t think being a scientist is any more incompatible with being a lover of God than it is with being a lover of the arts or literature.

Yes, science. Here’s how the cocktail party discussion typically goes down. Again, I wish people got this upset when other things get pureed, but anyway:

“So you think science is a social construct.”

“Yes, I do.”

“What about the theory of gravity? That’s part of science, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes.”

“All right, if gravity is socially constructed, I dare you to walk out this window right now.”

The howls of derisive laughter are not obligatory. The smug look, however, is.

Of course no one thinks gravity — or science — is fake. But to those poor souls infected with scientism, that’s exactly how the non-science world (e.g., of religion and the humanities) looks: vacuous, deliberately obscurantist, and just plain silly, what with all these “perspectives” on Shakespeare.

So what’s going on here? My take is this: I don’t think the term “socially constructed” is trying to say anything about a concept’s reality. It’s aiming instead at its objectivity. Here’s what I mean.

In school, one of the first things we’re taught is that 2 + 2 = 4. All well and good. But then they throw you a curveball, followed by a fastball and slider.

The curveball goes like this: since mathematical objects such as 2 + 2 = 4 are universal (true on Earth as well as Mars), they are independent of perspective. And since perspectives are held by people (OK, sentient beings), they must also be independent of human needs, concerns, and agendae.

The word we use for this most felicitous condition is “objective.” On the other side of the railroad tracks, of course, are “subjective” notions, such as opinions, which are entirely dependent on perspective.

Then comes a fastball: scientific laws, dates, particular interpretations (of history, religion, the body politic) are also packaged as “facts” and sold as enjoying the same status as mathematical objects.

Finally, the slider: these “objective facts” are then presented as the gold standard of truth. You are now invited to worship these “objective” truths the way a previous age (which we look down our historical nose at) worshipped God.

Why? Well, because only heathens, you see, coerce one another with deities, threats, and rifles. We civilized folks coerce one another with the force of logic, the “better argument,” rational assent, and this thing called the consent of the governed (which curiously seems to depend on your being Mr. Spock rather than Dr. McCoy).

Now when we say something is socially constructed we’re not questioning 2 + 2 = 4, we’re questioning the curveball. Sure the law of gravity applies to everyone, but does that mean it exists independent of human concerns? Does it stand outside the flow of culture and human history? Not at all – the law is meaningless absent the human (all right, all right, sentient) effort to predict, control, and influence nature.

For further giggles, take away measurement altogether from the human experience (I know it’s tough, but work with me here). Guess what else disappears now? That’s right: mathematical objects.

By my reckoning, the only people ever to claim something was fully independent of anything human referred to that property as transcendence and attributed it to the Divine. Now that’s fine if that’s where you think science wants to go, but my sense is that a lot of scientists might disagree.

Look, I don’t think there’s any question that things like race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity exist. The intellectually interesting question is: in what way? The same way as gravity?

We can be more specific. What is the nature of such concepts? What is their philosophical status? And what is their relationship to human living? Those are the questions opened up by social constructionism; at least, as I understand it.

I don’t think it takes away from the reality of scientific laws to say they arise from human efforts to predict, control, or influence. I happen to think that’s a very important part of who we are as a species.

Let’s just not pretend that such laws exist in a universe separate from our own, that we need a special kind of passport to cross from the universal to the particular. We don’t.

Worst of all, let’s not pretend that if a truth isn’t mathematical and/or immediately clear it isn’t a real truth. Life, literature, and love are chock full of vital lessons for us, very few of which make it to our ears the first time around.

This next part is for my more religiously inclined readers, particularly those with some exposure to Christianity. Saying something is “socially constructed” is arguing that its universality comes by way of immanence rather than transcendence. That is to say, 2 + 2 = 4 becomes universal by being of this earth, not fleeing from it.

Sound like anybody you know?

Ok, back to earth. For me the most important thing is that social constructionism isn’t a finger in the eye of the sciences. It is, instead, a call to look at the ways in which we create theoretical objects, particularly our most useful and cherished ones, and for what reasons.

That’s all. 🙂

Coming soon: What is Theory?

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8 thoughts on “What “Socially Constructed” Really Means

  1. Another vigorous, lucid post that drives a question:

    So what?

    The “so what” is that unless we recognize that things that are recognized as hard truths are really temporary by-products of social discourse, consent and manipulation, then we’re liable to make horrible errors of omission and commission against others.

    2+2=4 is true when referring to certain types of units; 2+2=2 is a truth when considering other types of units.

    What I wonder as I come to the end of your post is how this relativism can be translated into some kind of social awareness that influences all kinds of discourse.

    Any ideas?

  2. I don’t think this is relativism (the view that any view is as good as any other) but perhaps perspectivalism: the view that truths don’t float around freely in the metaphysical aether but are always and everywhere tied to some perspective.

    Now for the believer in one gold truth standard (e.g., mathematical), perspectivalism is the same as relativism. This is just another way of stating the scientistic claim that absent such a standard all other claims lose their value.

    I disagree. I not believe truths to be multiple and contestable, I think this is what gives philosophy (as well as life) its unique texture. Honoring the plurality and diversity of truth claims, it seems to me, is where a politics and ecology of respect begins today.

  3. So I think we agree, but I’m a sociologist, not a philosopher, so I had to read this twice to fully understand what (I think) you were saying.

    I study these social constructs in an effort to understand the way we think and why we do what what we do. Why do we think there is such a thing called race? Where did it come from – historically I know the answer to this, but why is it still here?

    It is a construct that we continue to give credence to, when we “know” scientifically that it does not exist. Of course because it is still here, it does exist and it does harm. These are the issues that fascinate me and help me to understand social interactions, social systems, war, death, poverty and even climate change.

    I find social constructs to be the most important things we have to define us, to define. Not being a philosopher nor a psychologist, I guess I am less schooled in the abstract and the individual and more knowledgeable with how they affect the group and the system. If by philosophical status, you mean what does it mean to us? Then yes I am interested in this too.

    I think we part ways a little regarding social constructs as equal to mathematical discoveries, I am not a mathematician & I don’t have the knowledge to refute your argument. I think social constructs should be considered equal to other “truths” and as they are more and more being considered as determinants to mortality and morbidity, I hope that they are given more and more weight. I believe we are on the same page here, or at least in the same reference part of the library, it will just take me a little time to understand your vocabulary. Worth it though.

    Thank you for writing again and more often. :o)

    1. I hope I’m not equating social constructs with mathematical discoveries, as that’s the opposite of what I want to do!

      My main beef is with the claim that it’s possible to speak about human concerns from some standpoint outside of them. Some forms of science and religion try to do this, I think, by pretending to speak not on behalf of humans with interests and motives but of some transcendent entity (nature or God) without any concern other than to know & speak the truth.

      While I understand the appeal of such a standpoint (especially given what humans can and have done to one another), I just don’t think it’s intellectually possible. Let me give an example.

      Some folks – scientists & scholars – speak about gender as if a) they didn’t have one, and b) whatever it is doesn’t in any way affect what it is they have to say about gender. Some religions try to do the very same thing by claiming to speak on behalf of a genderless God.

      I don’t think the validity of our claims about gender depends on our ability to escape or transcend gender, but from embracing, being thoughtful about, and articulating it (see my post on bias).

      I also don’t think it takes away from the legitimacy of what we say about gender to acknowledge that we have one, and that this affects what we can, can’t, will, and won’t say about it.

      Hope this isn’t even more confusing! Regardless, thanks again so much for reading and giving such thoughtful feedback! 🙂

  4. Perfect. OK I get it. Yes that is a reflection of the bias we all have all the time for everything. Agree wholeheartedly on that point. There is no truly objective response to anything because we read, see, think, learn, etc., in the context of who we are what we have already read, seen, thought, etc., and that shapes how we process the input we receive and the output we convey.

    But this does not mean our response to – whatever – is wrong, we just need to acknowledge our bias. Hey this sounds familiar. Thanks for clarifying. 🙂

  5. I’ve been puzzling this syllogism over, which is a reflection of the post’s clarity and my confusion.

    There are experiential truths that are “universals,” such as “heat will burn your hand.”. These truths provide the foundation for believing other truth can be equally inviolate.

    Beyond these experiential truth, there are culture constructs, which are beliefs that are shared across a group of people, like gender roles, safe foods, etc. Within the framework of these constructs, more fluid personal constructs are applied.

    Within the framework of “truths,” there is no perceived obligation to apply tests to statements. And, when a speaker hits in culturally constructed memes, they can advance what, under scientific examination — hypothesis, test, record –, would be outlandish and irresponsible statements.

    1. If I understand you correctly, your regard empirical (i.e., testable) truths as foundational. This, in turn, implies a view of truth as the correspondence between statements and states of affairs.

      There are other ways of looking at truth. My sense is that if you regard the correspondence model as paradigmatic, you risk seeing these other views (such as those which may operate in “culture constructs”) as inferior.

      My other hunch is that applying the empirical test to other forms of truth risks making them look outlandish.

      Perhaps the best example of this is viewing religion, mythology, and literature through the narrow lens of science and history. Philosophically speaking, this involves applying the rules of a “correspondence” model of truth (e.g., “is this claim replicable in the laboratory,” or “did it really happen this way?”) to a realm where coherence (e.g., “is Lear a believable character”) or pragmatic (“does this narrative help illuminate the experience of jealousy?”) models of truth may instead operate.

      Put another way, I think physical laws, mathematical statements, human beings, emotions, and coins are all “true” in very different ways, and that empirical testing can help adjudicate some claims but not others.

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