On Social Constructions

by matthew manotti

I have often heard the words “social construct” sprung at ideas in a way that is unfair both to the idea in question and to the concept of a “social construct” itself. Those who weaponized the words have rarely realized their meaning. Often, the phrase is used to defeat a thought without applying thought, that is, it is an application of a sociological construct by which the critic is able to avoid critical thinking. “Virtue is socially constructed,” says the Freshman. The Freshman has not bothered to ask what virtue is, what a social construction is, or if a social construction is merely a term that reveals something as unreal. Thus, the Freshman avoids the problem of The Meno, and refuses to think.

This misuse of the term is not isolated to Freshmen, of course. However, I have noticed that Freshmen are more likely to misuse it than others. This essay, then, is merely a gadfly for the benefit of those who are inclined to abuse the concept.

The phrase is often illegitimately used as a synonym to “illusion.” Its abusers are insightful enough to notice that there are no geological differences between Canada and the U.S.A. This means that what divides the people of the two nations are social constructions. These constructions are not physical, and therefore not real. As such, national boundaries are mere illusions, created by society to keep us divided.

The crux of this view is the meaning of the word “real.” It is true that few national boundaries are physical. But the physical is not the only thing that constitutes something “real.” We act, after all, as though those national boundaries are real. If people cross the boundaries without permit, there will be consequences. These consequences are social, but also physical. Such an immigrant may be locked away–a social consequence. Or such an immigrant may be shot and killed–a physical and social consequence. The social world regularly leaks into the physical and vice versa. To draw a line between the two and mark one real and the other unreal is to miss a key element of human societies. All social constructs are imbued with meaning. That meaning creates the world in which we live our lives: the real world in which we interact with objects under certain teleological ends.. When we approach a chair, we sit on it. We do not encounter it as merely form and matter. We perceive it first as a tool whose use has been taught to us by society. To break that use (to stand on the chair) is to break with reality. We expect only madmen to regularly stand on their chairs under normal circumstances.

It is worth noting that social constructions are not often encoded in law. A student, playing a prank or reaching something near the ceiling, can freely stand on his chair. He might be misusing the chair, but there are no serious social punishments for the misuse. In fact, there is a great danger in encoding social constructions into law. To do so would be to give credit for the construction to a particular lawmaker. But that would be another misunderstanding of the social construct. Implicit in the language of social construction is the idea that society has been the constructor, not an individual. This means that, when the concept of a national border was created, it was not because some mischievous person had the bright idea to draw a line. Instead, society as a democratic collective decided that this was a solution to a problem and, therefore, they ought to act as if it were real. Even this description may not accurately describe the invention. My sentence used words like “ought” and “decided.” But I doubt that there was a moment of decision, or an intention driving people towards what they ought to do. There was no meeting in the forum, no task force assigned to build walls. Instead, it was an event that emerged spontaneously from individual habits to national habits. Any line drawing by and map making was a result of enacting this prior concept. The social construct gives the form of the thought, intentional actions by people provide the content. Walls are built by nations, but nations are built by commonly shared ideas. In fact, if particular legal borders to not coincide with the social boarders, certain political conflicts arise, as can be seen in Africa after colonization.

If such an event can be socially constructed, can it also be socially deconstructed? In other words, could a group of individuals work to undo the meaning that has become implicit in national boundaries? Perhaps. But this endeavor is not nearly as simple as it might first appear. After all, the goal is not merely to deconstruct whatever material inventions have been put at the border–a wall, for instance–but to deconstruct the reason why such inventions have been placed there to begin with. Such a task might not be achievable through a political movement. I say that because political movements have ends and goals. They exist intentionally,yet social constructs are largely unintentional. They emerged from no grand plan for society, but rather from an immeasurable change in individual actions and concepts over time, as people adapted to new environments. All that a political movement can hope to do is potentially change the content of the social construct. The forms that society takes are beyond our control. We may change who is in power, for instance, but I am skeptical that power relations could ever cease to exist by means of some social force.

This does not mean that social constructions are unchangeable nor that some ought not be changed. I am merely saying that the means by which such changes take place may not be in our control. We do not stand above society, but within it; and our power and vision of our society is therefore limited.

As such, social constructs are not the end of thought but the beginning. They are the categories of culture in which our thought naturally falls. When Socrates asks Meno to describe what virtue is, he is asking Meno to describe that very category outside of the content which normally fills it. This does not mean that the content or constructs are arbitrary, they ought not be casually dismissed. Social constructs rarely exist without reason, however, the reason is so deeply embedded and assumed within our cultural consciousness that it is extraordinarily difficult to see. It is comparable to seeing light. While we all see light, we do not perceive it. We perceive the shapes and colors that light reveals to us. We only become aware of light when confronted with the dark.

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