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.

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  1. Rick Sage says:

    If I look at the regulatory cultural practices and ask if in fact the cultural regulation of gender may not have pathogenic implication: might gender be making me ill, diminish me, dull me. In this regard, under feminist theory, has repeatedly pointed to the ways in which normative gender inscription established divisive family systems, and problematic child-rearing practices.

    If so, and I consider how modern reappraisal of homosexuality pointed to the ways in which normative conscription leads to a social life that is also gender unlivable for many, then …why hasn’t the social construct considered gender by way of kinship?

    To narrate the questions I have to employ Freudian language. Using the model of Oedipal Theory as a means to understand the scenario of family life (the unique and blended scene of unconscious wish and conscious imagination) but not as a fixed social structure, a universal fundamental language, a determining symbolic order, or as a primordial law; shifting in accord of modern cultural practices and evolving symbolic systems, I can’t presume that gender unfolds with a psychically specific heteronormative domestic story.

    I can’t presume that gender produces like gender; fathers transfer masculinity to son, mothers transfer femininity to daughters.

    Think, how masculinity and femininity precedes parents and children.

    Think, how do governing norms assert and insert into the physic?

    Think, how do they regulate the family and the child?

    How do they move into the family, into the child?

    How do they move in a manner that is in thought, constituted, naturalized?

    How does gender get disrupted, challenged, broken by the psychic specificity of any given child, and the unique social world of any given family?

  2. John Howard says:

    Some people think people have the same reproductive rights whether they are male or female. They saw Monty Python Life Of Brian and now truly believe Stan has a right to have a baby. But that’s false, men don’t have a right to be pregnant. Reproductive rights are not culturally constructed, they are determined by biology.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Interesting point… although technically, I think you mean “reproductive capacity is determined by biology”, not “reproductive RIGHTS are determined by biology.” Unless you’re using the phrase “the right to have a baby” as synonymous with “the ability to be pregnant”.

      Another interesting thought: technology is advancing! In the future, men MAY get the ability to be pregnant. Or, we might have a way of creating babies that does not require biological pregnancy. Do you see that kind of technology as changing the landscape of “reproductive rights”? I think it would almost have to.

  3. Narcissa Smith-Harris says:

    I was with the writer of this article until they started down the line of saying that feminists say that or that men are only taller and stronger through social learning NO feminist says that. NONE.

    What we say is that physical ability varies between individuals (it does) and that individuals should be judged since plenty of woman are taller and stronger and than some men. (Those men might be taller and stronger than the women within their ethnic group mind but not those outside it. Another quirk of biology.) We also say being physical, doing outside work, etc. is not a male thing. The assumption that it is is a social construct.

    As for our supposedly saying there is there is nothing inherently male about having a penis , again not feminists. That is the transgendered community is the one that talks about maleness and penises. Feminists are often at odds with the transgendered community because of our idea of behavior and social constructs.

    In fact none of the things the writer claims feminists say, that are wrong, are things we actually say, so with that, and the fact nobody else’s actual silly things are cited, I am suspect of confirmation bias of this writer. Or the level of research he’s done frankly.

    Because on the pink and blue being colors for boys and girls, we don’t have to guess. We know. It is a social construct. It is not universal. Not only is it not universal but it used to be the exact opposite. Pink used to be for boys because it was more sexually linked. Blue was for girls (remember the virgin Mary? Blue is her color. It means purity.) Then it switched. And marketers had to come up with a color for boys. Blue it was and now we think those ideas are fixed. A little bit of googling could have answered this question.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, Narcissa!

      I’d like to start off with an assumption that I like to make clear any time I’m discussing intellectual movements, philosophies, or competing ideologies: no group is homogeneous. There is a wide range of feminists, there is a wide range of atheists, there is a wide range of liberals, and so on. And although I would like to think that all people who self-identify as part of a group that I identify with and hold in high regard agree with me on the important points… it’s just not true.

      I’d like to be able to say, “There has never been an atheist who has claimed to prove God doesn’t exist!” .. the fact is, there are some people who identify as atheists who do make such a claim. And they are wrong. That’s just the way of the world.

      This article was (pretty explicitly) a reaction to a lot of the bad rhetoric that I’ve seen online. I deliberately chose examples of some of the dumbest arguments on BOTH sides as a way of setting the stage, “bracketing” the issue, and pushing people to the center. Most feminists do not believe that the ONLY reason men are stronger than women is cultural conditioning; but it’s something that (twice!) self-identified feminists have said directly to me, as a sincere part of their argument. Similarly, not all “anti-feminists” say incredibly stupid things like “If gender is a social construct, why don’t you choose to be male?” But some do, especially on social media. I highlight both of those absurdities, because this article is a reaction to the misuse of the term, and I am illustrating the case with extreme examples.

      It is perfectly valid for you to then say: People who make those claims are not representative of real feminism, and although they may self-identify as feminists they do not understand the real principles of feminism. That’s a legitimate argument to make (in fact it’s a claim I agree with!!). But again, this is an article specifically about abuse of the term, so I naturally focused on strong illustrations of the misuse.

      Could I have done a better job of highlighting the fact that these extreme claims by self-identified feminists do not represent a real understanding of feminist positions? I definitely could have; perhaps I should have. But again: my focus here was neither to attack nor defend feminism (or “anti-feminism”) per se, but to draw attention to abuses the the term “social constructs”. I think I successfully did that by using some extreme examples from both of those groups (again: as per their self-identification).

      • Narcissa Smith-Harris says:

        Except Greg that when you say Feminists say…. you are implying not one individual who claims to be a feminist but a general strand of feminist thought, if it is a smaller subset it would be usual to modify it like radical feminists, but even radical feminists don’t make this claim, at least not as radical feminists.

        It would be like my hearing a person who claims to be a christian make dumb statement like the moon landing is a fake and my saying Christians say the moon landing is a fake when in fact as christians they don’t say this at all.

        Even if an individual who is a Christian said it to me.

        This kind of rhetorical elision is exactly the kind of propaganda that is continually used against feminism, to mock and undermine it. If you wanted dumb stuff people say you have plenty of it from the traditionalists side talking about innate difference between men and women. Most of it is idiotic.

        I would also add that in the men are stronger than women discussion, much of it is social construct because of the sheer lack of granularity and precision in the statement. Men are not actually stronger than women in any binary way. Not even close. What is true is that their ultimate potential is to have significantly more upper body strength, and some greater leg strength, combined with greater leverage of height and body structure given two people of equal physical conditioning and age. Another way to think about this is: Conan is stronger than Red Sonja but Red Sonja is far stronger than Billie Crystal, as an example (even when he was young).

        Not being precise about this leads to the association of women with physical weakness and helplessness which is not in any way warranted by the biological truth. We would not suggest that because not all men can bench 300 pounds that they are not physically capable or generally strong. Yet we make this social construct for women. The strongest women is not as strong as the strongest man and then suddenly women are kept out of entire activities and careers.

        WhenI was a girl , there was no title 9 , Jim Fix had just published his book, and it was thought odd and ill-advised of me to take up running. I used to haul hay on my parents farm and it was seen as some sort of 7th wonder of the world. I do Tae Kwon Do and have seen middle aged women break cement blocks and young women I would fear in a dark alley, and yet I know men who find the women in action movies “unbelievable” because women can’t do that biologically. (But Iron Man is?)

        Mocking feminists for not accepting biological “reality” is an old trope that props up an older social construct. Perhaps you did not mean to do it, I am happy to take a charitable interpretation of your intent. However, understand that you did perpetuate it, and perpetuate and old and tired social construct, even as you tried to explain the difference.

        This is the problem with talking about the biological differences of the sexes and why feminists as a rule are very leery of doing so. There is just so much confirmation bias and so little precision, that we don’t even realize when we’ve slid over from fact to fiction.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          I appreciate the concern that you have about the mis-representation of feminism, and I do understand the history exists of people trying to undermine feminism by attacking “extreme examples”, and also of people trying to use biological research to undermine feminism.

          In fact, in re-reading my article, I do see how my language can be improved to better prevent people from coming away with the impression that I’m making statements about “feminism” in its entirety. Specifically, in each of these cases where I use the word “feminist”:

          “I’m not sure all of the feminists who use the term “cultural construct” understand these gray areas.”

          “What about when feminists say that there is nothing “inherently male” about penises or body hair?”

          “But what these feminists mean…”

          “I think many of the feminists who make these claims…”

          I can probably retain the meaning I’m trying to convey simply by saying “people”. (e.g. “I think the people who make these claims….”) That makes the entire thing more clear. So thanks for bringing this to my attention, I think that is a good fix to the article.

          However, I do want to push back slightly on two of your other critiques, if I may:

          First: “I would also add that in the men are stronger than women discussion, much of it is social construct because of the sheer lack of granularity and precision in the statement. Men are not actually stronger than women in any binary way.”

          I find this a very unconvincing linguistic critique. When I say “summers are hotter than winters” everybody knows that I’m not saying every single day in the summer is hotter than every single day in the winter. When I say “I’m happier now than I was as a teenager” everybody knows that I don’t mean that there are NEVER a single day when I was a teenager when I may have been happier than SOME SINGLE DAY now as an adult.

          Maybe you think it naive, but I actually have faith the normal people acting in good faith know exactly what it means to make a statement about the differences between averages in two groups.

          Is it true that some bigoted people will deliberately misinterpret such a claim to demean women? Sure, but I absolutely don’t think the fault of that lies in the language being used. Bigoted people will manipulate meanings regardless.

          Second: “This is the problem with talking about the biological differences of the sexes and why feminists as a rule are very leery of doing so.”

          This is one of the places where I absolutely do criticize mainstream contemporary feminism per se. I think it’s incredibly damaging to ignore or downplay scientific realities of any kind. Do we need to make sure people don’t misconstrue scientific findings to promote bigotry? Of course. Do we need to do a better job of critique the way biological results are interpreted both inside and outside the scientific community? Of course. But a knee-jerk rejection of biological hypotheses (or worse: of biological data!) because of the fear that it might be abused is in and of itself harmful.

          I’ve talked about this last point in a video interview I did with Christina Hoff Sommers, if you are interested in checking it out:

          • Narcissa Smith-Harris says:

            I understand your point and appreciate your openness. I think people is a better fix.

            However,I don’t really see what the harm you speak of to be cautious of speaking of the differences between men and women given how it is used. Small differences are routinely blown up and then used to justify oppressive constructs. This isn’t a rare occurrence but a regular one. Thus a person of a scientific mindset should share the feminist concern naturally. They would move perhaps even more incrementally in their statements, knowing that the field simply doesn’t have a true “clean room”.

            As for the analogy between men are stronger and summer is warmer, several problems. The biggest is that we all know what summer feels like but we don’t all know what we mean by men are stronger. By no means are we on the same page there at all. Are we saying they are stronger overall or are we saying only upper body? Sometimes we mean one and sometimes we mean the other. People often conflate the two, assuming if one is true than the other must be as well. We don’t all know what it even means to say men are stronger. Most of us don’t know that the difference between men and women is only about 15% max. We don’t all know that men’s advantage is solely in power because men usually start out with more muscles. We think testosterone gives them a huge boost. (Nope only a small one. )It is their lack of fat that permits more muscles. Most of us don’t know that in fact women’s muscles fatigue less (because of estrogen) and thus can do more work. (I know I didn’t until about 2 hours ago in looking this up.)

            So the shorthand used you say we understand is not based on a shared understanding. I’d also say that in the case of summer and winter, the difference (unless we are talking about climate change) is not affected by personal genetics, conditioning or age. Strength is. Again. Conan is unquestionably stronger than Red Sonja but Red Sonja is unquestionably stronger than Billie Crystal or really most of the average men walking about. She may be an extreme example but the real world strength differences between men and women are very individual indeed.

            Science is a field were the particulars matter. If we are to invoke it, then we must be particular ourselves. I don’t really get why people are so resistant to being so when it comes to describing men and women.

          • Greg Stevens says:

            Our biggest obstacle right now might be the level of generality at which we are discussing this, and the way each of us is parsing some of these generalizations.

            For example, when you say, “we must be particular” and that we should “move incrementally”, I agree completely.

            But when you say feminists are “leery of” or that we should be “cautious of” talking about biological sex differences, those terms invoke a totally different sense to me.

            So let me use a more concrete example to illustrate my position.

            If someone presents research that shows (I’m making this up as an example) a linear correlation between testosterone and spatial reasoning ability, and concludes that this physiological relationship confirms that men have evolved to have better spatial reasoning than women, then a justified (and expected) scientific response is “WHOAH there! There are a lot of assumptions going on there.” Then, another research team would offer a different possible explanation — for example, that some exogenous factor correlated with testosterone impacts behavior which in turn impacts the development of spatial reasoning. The first team (or some other group) could then counter by testing to see if the correlation exists with pre-natal testosterone levels as well, ruling out behavioral feedback on biochemistry. If that pans out, then other scientists could challenge it on other grounds, and science would continue in its normal incremental fashion.

            And if that process is something you support, then you and I completely agree on how the world should work!

            What I don’t agree with (and unfortunately have heard expressed by some people), is: “You should simply not be researching links between physiology and sex differences in the first place, because such research can be abused.” Or: “You should not even be trying to test evolutionary hypotheses, because they are inherently harmful.” Or some other variant like that.

            So back to the discussion you and I were having: I see words like being “leery of” doing a particular line of research, and I don’t know what that means. Does it mean we should SHY AWAY FROM asking the questions? If that’s what you mean, I strongly am against that position.

            But if it means we must be precise and careful in how we formulate our questions and interpret our results… then of course I agree with you! I would hope that every good scientist would!

          • Narcissa Smith-Harris says:

            Leery means two things, firstly in making blanket statements using scientific data but also cautious in our creation of these studies.

            I would not say that we can not study the differences, however, I don’t think we have yet approaching this with the caution of scientist, particularly in evo-psche like statements.

            There is simply too much acceptance of short-cuts, too much reverse engineering theories, too many assumptions, too little predictions, and far too little logic applied.

            We take behaviors we see know and try to explain them based on evolution without using things that make sense in regards to evolutionary theory. Sex linked differences need reasons that are either linked to a) one’s reproductive role (woman’s fat storage, breasts, mammary glands etc.) b) sex selection (the peacock’s tail) c) sexual competition (the greater size of males i.e. need to compete with other males) or d) aspects of the X or Y chromosone. Given the characteristics of the X and Y chromosone, it is more likely that women will have a characteristic, or lack of negative one than men will have a positive one. (Why genetically women are actually the stronger sex and suffer fewer abnormalities).

            But this field does not look at characteristics and think how would this fit into that? As let’s say any question of math ability. Hey, you want to see my quadratic equation is not a line women here very often, and only a rare subset would respond positively to it. And I think it is obvious it doesn’t fit in the other three. Perhaps you could say that music rides along with it (which does work) but men and women have equal musical abilities so clearly it doesn’t reside in the Y chromosone. That’s just one example among so many.

            Usually what’s cited as the reason is our roles as hunter gatherers but since we don’t actually know how our ancient hunter gatherers ordered their society we can’t make these assumptions. To do so is a complete failure of the scientific method. For that matter, we have no reason to believe that the trait they claiming came from then did so. Perhaps the trait evolved from agricultural society, or even more likely the rise of patriarchy itself. Women are more likely to behave in ways that meet the approval of patriarchal societies for the simple and obvious reasons that women who pleased violent and militaristic patriarchs were more likely to live and produce more progeny. Women who fought it died younger or without issue. (And men who could take advantage of it also did better of course.)

            But the insistence on tracing it back further is an attempt to make such behaviors/situations so hardwired that change would be unnatural, a message routinely used by those fighting woman’s rights at every step.

            Also in this field, we find few who look at our reproductive roles and then try to predict as if they didn’t know. We don’t find people suggesting that women and men may have nature’s at odds with what we are told, or even something surprising. (And when we do, as we did recently with CEO’s and risk, it is deemphasized.) Studies emphasize what men are good at and value, not what women do. Lots of statements about how men are strong, not so much about how women are flexible. And when studies are published that suggest some hardwired learning differences that don’t favor women, it is quickly touted as a reason women are not represented in a field. Never mind that it is never an excuse for men not to be in field. We are supposed to accept that women are not in science because they are not as good at it. But when the shoe is on the other foot, not so much. Women are supposed to be communicators right? So wonderful with language? And yet most of the cannon in English literature is male writers. Most of the reviewers of modern literature are male and most of the books reviewed today are also male Same with prizes. These two statements don’t make sense laid next to each other.

            So yes, I still say leery is the right word. Researchers have to tell a very, very long story and prove a) that the value of the research outweighs the misuse and that b) they the understand the immense obstacles involved in getting any sort of real data.

          • Greg Stevens says:

            OK, well then we seem to have highly overlapping views in many ways… but this is one place where we diverge a little. I don’t think researchers need to “prove” that the value of their research outweighs misuse. I think they simply have the responsibility — just as society as a whole has a responsibility — to critique misuse and address it overtly when it happens. But potential misuse should never (in my opinion) be a reason to NOT DO RESEARCH. It should be something one keeps in mind to guide research, and to guide how one interprets it and even how one writes it up.

            But when I look at some of the real research being done in evolutionary psychology — not the way it is misreported and dramatized in the press — I see a little bit of sloppiness and hyperbole, but I also see a LOT of science being done exactly the way it should be done: iterative hypothesis testing, data collection, and challenges to produce more hypotheses and tests, over and over again.

            Hypothesis: mating strategy differs according to investment required by the parent. Prediction: whatever parent is responsible for gestation prefers a more monogamous mating strategy. Is it just post-hoc fitting of known data? Sure, until they discover a species of sea horse where the fetus gestates in the male, and in which the female pursues are a more short term / multiple partner mating strategy. That’s a predictive hit.

            By itself, that result doesn’t “prove” anything, but it’s an example of science being done in the way it should be done. And those examples happen all over the place in evolutionary psychology. And the fact that tabloids end up with headlines like “BIOLOGY PROVES MEN CAN’T HELP SLEEPING AROUND!” (or whatever) is absolutely not a reason to NOT research the topic of sexual differences in mating strategy. It’s a reason to raise awareness about the mis-reporting of science in our popular culture.

            If anything, it’s a reason to do MORE research on such topics: to challenge things constantly, not by writing criticisms that deconstruct the existing research, but by proposing competing hypothesis that can be tested experimentally and then proving the evolutionary theories wrong. That’s the proper way to critique a scientific theory …. via the scientific process!

            Oooh…. I’m noticing how forceful my language gets on this topic! I apologize if I’m coming across at all impolitely; I just feel very passionate about science. 🙂

            Now, in the interest of clarity, I do want to re-iterate something: we need to be VERY careful, and constantly challenge research on socially charged scientific subjects. I have a friend who happens to be a right-wing lunatic, who is always sending me emails with links and saying things like “What do you think of this study that shows black people have a lower IQ than white people? HUH?”

            And I tell him: the absurdity of such studies is that they raise more questions than they answer, because of (usually) the HUGE assumptions they make and gaps in methodology.

            And the solution to that problem, in my opinion, isn’t to condemn that research… it’s to do MORE and BETTER research on the topic!

            For every study like that, there needs to be the next study: How are subjects sorted into “black” and “white”? Are there other independent measures that correlate with self-report? What results do you get when you look at biracial people? If there are multiple disparate ways of sorting multiracial people into “groups”, how are they correlated? Are the IQ results more correlated with some of those classification methods than others? Since IQ is known to be a composite measure, how do the results play out for the components? Is there an explanatory model for why the differences exist? If so, can that model be tested?

            And so on and so on and so on.

            It should delve deep, it should be detailed, and in an ideal world the resulting research should completely revolutionize the way we perceive concepts such as “race” AND “intelligence”! That’s what research is ultimately for, I think.

            (…am I too idealistic? Ha, ha.)

          • Narcissa Smith-Harris says:

            I think studies do need to have justifications of worth since every study that gets done means another study doesn’t get done.

            In regards to the IQ bit, the problem comes in “just doing more research” is the way the question gets framed. If it keeps getting framed with the prejudicial parameters then even the study reinforces them. Murray’s the Bell Curve is an example. He asked how big a role racism played in results of lower IQ”with the assumption the only baseline could be that white and black were equal intelligence and racism played a lot or blacks lower and it didn’t play into it. However, he never considered that Blacks were smarter and racism played a lot into. (HIs understanding of genetic and inherited traits was also confused.) And so by always framing the question this way we reinforce the idea that the best African-Americans could be is equal.

            This is what I am talking about, many of the studies themselves, ask questions in ways that confirm bias and the status quo. They don’t break it open or challenge assumptions in a way that would truly change folks like your friend. (I’ve had those conversations as well. People think they understand IQ. They don’t. Or as I said the meaning of genetic and inherited traits).

            As an aside, I am a little skeptical of the one who does the childrearing prefers monogamy result actually because most studies don’t show that result. While such a study is predictive, it isn’t actually logical. There is no need for the individual that does the bulk of the childrearing to be monogamous. They are assured of parentage. There is no need for them to be promiscuous either, of course. Picky mate selection is predicted and limited multiple partner relationships to gain extra resources where possible.

            I don’t take your tone amiss, you’ve been respectful overall and flexible, and mentioning when you are simply feeling passionate in language (because you recognize you could be misunderstood) is good enough for me in most cases. I hadn’t but very much appreciate the consideration. Thank you.

          • Greg Stevens says:

            I appreciate your point of view. Again, I think the answer to bad science is increasing the amount of good science, rather than trying to prevent science; and using counter-studies to disprove bad theories, rather than simply criticizing the bad theories. None the objections you raised are impervious to being countered by more people doing good research in the field in question.

            So we can agree to disagree on this matter. Thanks for the chat, though.

          • lin says:

            Re lefthandedness, I hear that a lot, and we modern folk seem to forget that there were actually good reasons, in a culture that writes from left to right, for lefties to become righties. For example, left hands moving behind the quill or fountain pen smear the ink it lays down, while right hands moving ahead of the pen gave the ink a few seconds to dry.

    • lin says:

      I’ve heard it, too. Here is a similar statement by a prominent feminist:

      “The belief that women are somehow a ‘naturally weaker gender’ is a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false- but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures.”


      I couldn’t believe my ears, especially when she says “of course … completely false,” as if not only is there absolutely no evidence that women are naturally weaker than men, but “of course” everyone knows it.

      But has this article been changed because I don’t see the author claiming that feminists say these things, just “some people.”

      • Greg Stevens says:

        Lin – good observation! I do mention elsewhere in the comments (in reply to the same comment thread you replied to) that, since my arguments still hold and are true if you change the word “feminists” to the word “people”, it saved same wasted breath (metaphorically) to just make the change.

        However, now that you’ve pointed it out: a lot of people might not see my mention of that change in the comment thread.. I should probably put a note at the bottom of the article mentioning that I made that change in wording. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Dave says:

      “I was with the writer of this article until they started down the line of saying that feminists say that or that men are only taller and stronger through social learning NO feminist says that. NONE.”

      I have literally heard a high school teacher in my country make this claim, and when a boy in class tried to argue against it, she ignored him. I live in Iceland, which tends to be less radical and extreme on these types of issues compared to countries like the U.S. or the UK, or parts of Europe. So if it can happen here, it very likely happens there.

      Furthermore, I have seen photos taken by students in the U.S. of slides in things like Gender Studies classes that make claims of “science is a social construct” as well. Just because you are fortunate to not encounter the crazy, doesn’t mean the crazy isn’t being unleashed as the new doctrine in classrooms, sadly.

      • Greg Stevens says:

        I agree with you Dave… I think it’s a (perhaps natural but unfortunate) instinct for people to want to ignore or disclaim the fact that crazy people often mis-represent their own side. Liberals and conservatives both do it, feminists and anti-feminists both do it. I try to admit that there are “crazy stupid liberals” whenever I can, simply because I think it then makes my own “take” on liberalism that much more honest and trustworthy: I’m fighting for a specific ideology, not a “side”.

  4. RobotPanda says:

    Worth noting that in some languages, like mine, the idea of gender as opposed to sex is impossible to communicate.

    In its roots, the word ‘gender’ in English refers to the gender of inanimate objects. It’s more of a grammatical construct from when English was a heavily gendered language. Mine still is and the contrast between a gendered and genderless language is very visible to me. Almost every single object in Bulgarian has a grammatical gender. A table is a she, a chair is a he, etc.

    English changed from heavily gendered to a “default to male” language in the 19th century and ultimately dropped gender altogether. It was its logical conclusion. As far as I know, English hasn’t had grammatical rules regarding how words should be gendered. In Bulgarian if you wanted you can take a word from one gender and force it into another by adding or removing a bunch of letters. Take the word for chair – stol. Add -ka at the end, it becomes stolka and now it is a female word. It’s completely wrong grammatically, but Bulgarians will still understand what’s going on. That’s how ingrained gender is in our language. To remove it from our grammar, we will basically have to rewrite half of the words.

    Which leads me to my ultimate point – we have the same word for grammatical gender and biological sex. There is no word for gender as it is used today in the west. If you try explaining it, you’ll end up communicating that “sex is a social construct”. Good luck with that.

    And I don’t mind that, as this idea of gender being social construct didn’t help anything at all. There were crossdressers and transsexuals before it, sexually atypical people who could always be explained by any language. You can talk about how the sexes are socially conditioned to be a certain way here and people will understand you. And there’s certainly merit to saying that people are socially conditioned based on their sex. I think having the conversation on that level, and not relying on wordplay, would be a much more productive way of exploring how people see themselves.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, RobotPanda! The issue of “gender” as a linguistic phenomenon versus “gender” as a sex-related social construct is a fascinating one, and I’ve read widely divergent opinions on the matter. It certainly adds a level of complexity to the conversation, and I’m glad you brought it up!

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