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Social constructs or social constructions define meanings, notions, or connotations that are assigned to objects and events in the environment and to people’s notions of their relationships to and interactions with these objects. In the domain of social constructionist thought, a social construct is an idea or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not rep resent reality, so it remains largely an invention or artifice of a given society.
Games are an example of socially constructed entities and often exist because of certain sets of conventional rules. These sets of social conventions and agreement to abide by them give games their meaning in any given social context. The game of football could be played in any way, but there have developed over the years known conventional rules governing the players, spectators, and the game’s organization. The meaning given to games is therefore socially constructed.
Gender, which represents ways of talking, describing, or perceiving men and women, is also a socially constructed entity. Generally distinguished from sex (which is biological), notions of gender represent attempts by society, through the socialization process, to construct masculine or feminine identities and corresponding masculine or feminine gender roles for a child based on physical appearance and genitalia.
Social class is yet another socially constructed entity. While most scholars agree that class appears to represent a universal phenomenon, its meaning is often contextually located because what determines class varies from one society to another, and even within a culture different people may likely have different notions of class determinants.
Depending on the constructionist perspective, social construction may be the outcome of human choices rather than of immutable laws of nature. Here, then, lies the core issue over which social scientists diverge. Are human ideas and conceptions generated more on subjective criteria than on objective realities? Debates have raged in the social sciences along the divide of science versus objective truth. In the social construction of reality, the question has often been asked: To what extent is our claim to knowledge supported by reality? In other words, to what extent is this claim a social construct? Some writers believe that to the extent that knowledge is aligned with reality, it approximates objective truth; anything less represents a social construct. According to this thinking, even morality is a social construct. However, others believe that all knowledge is social construction.
The basis of this debate—in fact the point of departure among scholars—is the claim that social constructions are based on social facts and surrounding social conventions. Thus constructions based on “facts”—facts that are not ontologically dependent on the social structures and conventions of society—are not. However, Ian Hacking (1999) believes that there are few if any “universal constructionists,” in which case few people would argue that the sun or DNA are socially constructed, existing entirely independently of that construction. On the contrary, the social arena is quite different, as vital social realities are socially constructed, existing by virtue of that social construction by people over time and space. This seeming narrow threshold between scientific construction and social constructs presents problems in social analy-sis—indeed hard nuts that need to be cracked and cracked satisfactorily.
In the resulting ongoing science wars, one side argues that scientific results, including even those of basic physics, are socially constructed. Others protest, arguing that these results are usually discoveries about our world; they are not the production of society but exist independently of consciousness. However, some sociologists, such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor (1982), have taken a relativist view of social construction, claiming that any notion is as good as the other. Thus, for instance, if a new social construction of the Holocaust emerges, arguing that claims about Nazi extermination camps are exaggerated and that the gas chambers are a fiction, that view may well then be at par with other beliefs about the same phenomena, though this may represent historical revisionism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that constructionists attempt to sort out their notions and beliefs using standards of their own convictions and culture.
Peter Cohen (1990), in his discussion of drug use as a social construct, argues that concepts used to describe and explain the phenomenon of drug use are surrounded by bias, a bias produced by a cultural dependency rather than drug use itself. The so-called scientific analysis of drug use, he argues, has often been used as an instrument for survival of the most powerful; power is not only relevant to decision making and resource allocation but also to the social construction of ideology and morality. Scientific constructions and concepts are thus developed according to the interests and tastes of people in power (a trend that is inescapable though may not be justified), and so these constructions often fit into conventional standpoints on topics of research.
The implications of these varying constructionist positions is that, once again, it is not often clear what is, or what should be, socially constructed. Radical constructionism best underscores this basic problem in social construction. Radical constructionists are concerned, for instance, with the domain of technology, with showing how social processes affect the content of technology and what it means for technology to be seen as working. They claim that the meaning of technology, including facts about its workings, are themselves social constructs. Similarly, on the social construction of reality, radical con-structionists believe that the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself and that knowledge is a self-organized cognitive process of the human brain, a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data. If this is so, it is impossible to determine the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.
The problem of social construction has become more pronounced in different constructions of race based on diverging claims on racial distinctions.They argue that people of different races, even within the same population, have different ancestries, meaning that different genes are inherited from ancestors. However, Hacking (1999) insists that research studies have tended to challenge the idea of race by presenting evidence that the scientific basis for racial distinctions is based on shaky grounds.
Attempts to confine race to social construction appear to be based on the potential dangers of emotions that may be triggered by suggestions that racial differences reflect meaningful biogenetic differences. This has meant that some experts are inclined to publicize the idea that race does not exist. For instance, the New England Journal ofMedicine, a prestigious medical journal, editorialized on May 3, 2001, “In medicine there is only one race, the human race.”
But as a social construct, connotations of race change as social, political, historical, and economic structures of society change. Rodney D. Coates (2004) argues that notions of race are created for people to fit into, to raise consciousness in line with conceptual boxes so created, and often to generate racial outcomes, for instance, notions of racial inequality to produce racial superiority. He observes that the construct “black” has in fact changed over time and space, and he questions whether our conceptions of “blacks” have correspondingly changed with the lived experiences and reality of blacks. This invariably reveals the dynamic nature of social reality. If constructions of this lived reality fail to reflect that dynamism, it may become an invalid analytic or discursive unit, that is, a unit or object of analysis or discussion and debate.
Stephen Spencer (2000) has further asked: If race is a social construct, of what is it precisely constructed if not the scientifically invalid false consciousness of biological race? He argues that it is as necessary to problematize the social construction of race as it is to question its scientific construction. He concludes that for those who believe in biological construction of race but not in its social construction, the basis of their construction has an underlying biological conception, whether or not they admit that. Such constructions often create false consciousness, producing uncertainty as to what are or are not social differences and ultimately creating a new consciousness, a new social reality.
These questions highlight the problem of what is and what is not a social construct. The answer may well lie in the fact that it all depends on the researcher’s politics, theoretical orientation, discipline, position in the class structure, or cultural context. It remains that people may often attempt to justify self-serving definitions, but this raises yet another fundamental question: Can this alter consensus on the validity of concepts? It is apt at this point to note that the use of invalid concepts in social research, public discourse, or policy debates may in fact lead to reification. However, in scientific construction, researchers must move outside the boxes of existing notions of matters of investigation to evaluate and analyze issues on such matters from radically different assumptions, even the assumptions of their disciplines (Coates 2004).
- Barnes, Barry. 1974. Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Barnes, Barry, and David Bloor. 1982. Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge. In Rationality and Relativism, eds. Martin Hollis and Stephen Lukes, 21–47. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Coates, Rodney D., ed. 2004. Race and Ethnicity: Across Time, Space, and Discipline. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Cohen, Peter. 1990. Drugs as a Social Construct. PhD diss., Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
- Darity, William A., Jr. 2003. Racial/Ethnic Employment Discrimination, Segregation, and Health. American Journal of Public Health 93 (2): 226–231.
- Darity, William A., Jr., and P. L. Mason. 1988. Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender. Journal of Economic Perspectives 12 (2): 63–90.
- Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Kalekin-Fishman, Devorah, Hanan Bruen, and Miriam Ben-Peretz. 1986. Perception and Interpretation of Vocal Music: Constructs of Social Groups. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 17 (1): 53–72.
- Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
- Spencer, Stephen. 2000. Popular Culture and the Rural Dream: Cultural Contexts and the Literary History of the Good Earth. Atenea (June): 125–138.
- Spencer, Stephen. 2000. “Racing” Whiteness: American Culture and Construction of Race. Paper presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, April 8.
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