What is a social construct?

By Pat Reilly

Oftentimes, we seem to have conflicting intuitions about social reality. Just what are the social roles we fill and the social categories we fall into? On the one hand, there is frequently a strong intuition to conclude that social reality is a construct, and therefore less than real in some sense. On the other hand, our social roles, identities, and relations seem to have a huge impact on our lives. Surely, only something real could impact us so significantly. So, what should we think about social reality? What would it be to change social reality?

There’s good reason to think that this is only an apparent tension, however. The main considerations involve thinking carefully about what we mean by social construction, and what we mean by something’s being real or not. So first, what is it for something to be socially constructed? In the most general sense, a social construct seems to be something that at least partly depends on (collective) human practices and attitudes for its existence. Sometimes, this dependence is obvious and widely acknowledged. For example, it is quite clear that money is a social construct in this sense. Even if all the coin-shaped bits of metal existed independently of human society, they wouldn’t truly be money without human society.

On the other hand, the constructed nature of some things is less obvious, and some social items are understood in a non-social way by many. Racial and gender categories are one prominent example. Many people, especially members of privileged racial and gender groups, continue to hold the view that these categories are entirely biological. This is partly why exposing some social constructions requires a deliberate “debunking” project, where the non-social understandings are shown to be false.

Describing something as being socially constructed is a way of explaining how it came to be, rather than explaining it away.

These debunking projects are often part of a broader effort to critique the current social arrangements and call for social change. After all, once we see that a form of identity-based oppression is rooted in social attitudes, practices, and other conditions, it becomes clear that we can change it. However, there is a mistake in supposing that socially constructed roles, categories, and relations are somehow not real. If by “real” we mean something that exists, then it’s obvious that social constructions are real. If by “real” we mean something that does not depend on human attitudes and practices, then we might truly say that social reality isn’t real, but then it’s not obvious what the significance of “realness” is. Human attitudes and practices are part of our material reality. The things that are caused or constituted by human attitudes and practices are also part of our material reality. Describing something as being socially constructed is a way of explaining how it came to be, rather than explaining it away.

Still, even if we think that social constructions really exist, we can recognize that they don’t have to. It is possible for them to be replaced by other social roles, categories, and relations. Facing the reality of social reality means recognizing the difficulty in making such changes, however. It is not a matter of simply changing our attitudes as if snapping our fingers, for these attitudes also do not just arise by themselves. Social reality comes about in virtue of a complex mix of attitudes and practices, but also largely from material conditions that help to produce those attitudes and practices. So, while it can be important to call out incorrect and harmful attitudes and practices, to undo unjust social conditions, fundamental changes to material conditions is of the utmost importance.

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