Social Constructs 101: what the term means, and what it doesn’t mean

The idea of the “social construct” has seeped into popular culture and is being abused by activists of all sorts. Claims like “gender is a social construct” get thrown around, and amazingly both the people who argue for and the people who argue against the claim often have no idea what they are talking about. So this will be a short and simple question-and-answer style lesson on social constructivism, a sort of “Social Constructs 101”, so that the next time you argue with someone about whether gender or race (or anything else) is a social construct, you can know what you’re talking about.

Q: Is the perception of color a social construct?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: Because people in different cultures not only name colors differently, but studies in basic perception have shown that people in different cultures experience color differently. At the most fundamental level of sensation, your experience of color is determined in part by the culture you grew up in.

The colors that people experience from different wavelengths of light depends in part on their language and culture.

The colors that people experience from different wavelengths of light depends in part on their language.

Q: Does that mean that color is arbitrary?

A: No, color is a hard-wired property of the biology of the eye, and how the cells in your eyes interact with different wavelengths of light. Your experience of color is fixed by the way your cells work, and the physics of electromagnetic radiation.

Q: But I thought you said the experience of color is influenced by culture?

A: It is. But it isn’t infinitely malleable. Some aspects of color perception are very hard-wired, because of limits on what our biology can and can’t do. For example, the back of your eye has three different types of color-sensitive cells. Unless you are biologically color-blind, you will have the same three types of color cells that any other human will have.  That doesn’t depend on your culture or upbringing or personal history at all.

types-of-receptorsQ: So you are saying that something can be socially constructed and biological?

A: Definitely. In fact, almost everything is both socially constructed and biologically determined to some degree. Rather than trying to divide the world into “things that are socially constructed” and “things that are biological”, it would make more sense to talk about the range of impact that an organism’s environment and history can have. Sometimes, the influence that culture and personal experience can have is very narrow: we think of these things as mainly biological. Sometimes, the influence that culture and personal experience can have is very broad: we think of these things as mainly environmental or cultural. Most stuff is in the very wide area in between.

Almost any category or concept you have will be based on a complex interaction between genes, your biology as an organism, your physical environment, and your social learning environment.

Almost any category or concept you have will be based on a complex interaction between genes, your biology as an organism, your physical environment, and your social learning environment.

Q: Are there any other things that are clearly both biological and cultural? An example that there isn’t a lot of political debate over would be nice.

A: Sure, one obvious example is language. The language you learn depends on the culture you grew up in. Language is therefore socially determined, it is a social construct. But we have a long history of studies in psychology, education and neuroscience that show we have hard-wired portions of our brain that dictate how language works, and what things we can and can’t learn.

Q: So you are saying that language is learned, but is not (to use your term) “infinitely malleable”?

A: Correct. Our brains are hard-wired to process language according to certain rules and in a certain way. When humans have attempted to create artificial languages, using rules that linguists made up because they seemed “proper” and “logical”, the moment you raise a young child to try to learn that language as a first language, it mutates and takes on all of the quirks and eccentricities that natural languages have. The biology of our brains requires us to process language in certain particular ways.

Q: How does all of this apply to gender and race?

A: They both are a socially constructed. They both are also biological. The way we experience gender and race–the way we see “boundaries” between categories, the way we experience their impact–is influenced by learning and culture. But they are also constrained by, and rooted in, things that are deeply physiological and “fixed” at a fundamental level.

Q: So when someone says that gender is culturally constructed, that doesn’t mean that it is something arbitrarily created and taught by cultures?

A: Of course not. Not if that person is using the term correctly, anyway. What we think of as “gender” is a very complex interacting network of traits and behaviors, and both sexual and non-sexual characteristics. Some of these characteristics are highly constrained by biology, some are only marginally constrained by biology, and some are purely social.

Q: Can you give an example of each of those cases you just listed?

A: Sure! Men tend to have more body hair than women. Sure, some men are more hairy than other men, and some women are more hairy than other women, and there are some extreme cases where some women may be more hairy than some men… but that is very rare. This is a phenomenon that is controlled by hormone production, which in turn is controlled by genes. It’s highly constrained by biology.

Q: How about “marginally constrained”?

A: Aggressive versus nurturing personalities are a good example of this. There are huge amounts of evidence that aggression and nurturing instincts are influenced by hormones that have different levels in men and women. However, complex behaviors such as “aggression” and “nurturing” are also highly influenced by learning and culture: so much so that there is a lot of overlap between men and women in these dimensions, and some cultures can push both men and women to one extreme end or the other on both dimensions. So these traits are what I would call “partially malleable” by culture.

Q: OK, but what is an example of something that is purely social?

A: The association between girls and the color pink, and boys and the color blue, is probably purely cultural. Perhaps the association of boys with pants and girls with dresses might be another example. I doubt there is a biological component to that.

Q: I’m not sure all of the people who use the term “cultural construct” understand these gray areas. I’ve seen some people claim that the only reason men tend to be taller and stronger than women is because of social learning and conditioning.

A: That is stupid. That person needs to take a class in the physiology of hormones and development.

Why not become male?Q: On the other hand, I hear some people make the joke “If gender is really just a social construct, why don’t you become male and take advantage of the patriarchy?”

A: That joke is based on a misunderstanding of what “social construct” means. Just like with color perception and language, the fact that something is a social construct doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s something you can simply choose.

Q: What about when people say that there is nothing “inherently male” about penises or body hair? Is that also based on a misunderstanding of what “social construct” means?

A: I would say it’s more just an abuse of language, and a manipulative one at that.When most people hear the phrase “there is nothing inherently male about penises” it comes across as absurd and radical, because they understand the phrase to mean “there is no association between penises and our ideas of maleness and masculinity.” That’s a dumb assertion. But what these people mean–or claim to mean–is that having a penis is not a necessary requirement for having a male gender identity. Well, when you interpret the phrase that way, it’s both obviously true and kind of boring. If you chop off someone’s penis, he doesn’t instantly transform from being “male” to being “not male.” So the phrase is only radical when misunderstood. Unfortunately, I think many of the people who make these claims don’t want to be understood. They are just trying to shock people.

Q: Last question. If someone says to me, “Gender is a social construct!” how should I respond?

A: Ask them what they think the term means. “Social construct” is so misused and abused that you really need to figure out whether the person using is has any idea what they are talking about, before it’s worth taking the conversation any further.