“Gender is a social construct.”
“Race is a social construct.”
Maybe you’ve heard these phrases in arguments online. It’s usually accompanied by the ideas that we should change our traditional views on these subjects.
But this article isn’t about gender or race specifically. It’s going to be about social constructs: what they are, how they’re created, and how they contribute to key debates in psychology.
Let’s get started.
What Is A Social Construct?
Social constructs are objects or events that exist only because they were created and accepted by society. Without human interaction, social constructs would not exist and would not continue to have an impact on society. They do exist, but in an objective reality.
Examples of Social Constructs
Countries are a Social Construct
Here’s an example of a social construct: countries. Would countries exist if it weren’t for human interaction? No. The borders that we assign to countries and the institutions we set up to govern those countries are created, understood, and accepted only because of human interaction. If humans were to disappear off the face of the Earth today, there would be no such thing as “Mongolia” or “Argentina.”
Money is a Social Construct
Because social constructs exist in an objective reality, they can change and look different among different societies or cultures. One culture’s construct of money may look very different from another culture’s construct of money. The value that we place on money is also created and assigned by human interaction. To one society, a piece of paper or a plastic card can represent currency. To another, it’s just a piece of paper or a plastic card.
In the 1700s, plastic cards with magnetic strips weren’t considered currency. You couldn’t go to the local cobbler and swipe a credit card to pay for some shoelaces. But the idea of currency has evolved with technology. The value that we give to a heavy, black credit card is much higher today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.
Marriage Is a Social Construct
Societies have the power to create social constructs, and they also have the power to change them or to take them away. This doesn’t happen overnight – just look at the fight for marriage equality. There are still people that believe that marriage only exists between a man and a woman. But it only existed between a man and a woman because society said it did so many years ago.
Social constructs have much of an effect on us as we do on social constructs. Let’s continue to look at the construct of marriage. The idea and institution of marriage simply wouldn’t exist without human interaction. (Mating for life simply isn’t the same thing.) But you are just as influenced by the institution of marriage.
Little girls dream about being a blushing bride before they are even allowed to date. At a certain age, not being married may make you feel insecure. Family members, friends, and society as a whole may pass judgements on someone who is not married, happily married, or has been married seven times. Our decisions about fidelity and our relationships are often influenced by the pressure of marriage, the status of marriage, and what it “means” to be married.
Other Examples of Social Construct
Social constructs run the way that we envision our lives, make decisions, and feel about others. They are all around us. Other examples of social constructs include:
What Is Not a Social Construct?
It seems like everything is a social construct, only because human interaction is crucial to developing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Think about it this way: if the human race where to be completely wiped out tomorrow, would the concepts of countries, age, or language exist? No, so these are social constructs.
Social Constructs Make Us As We Make Them
If a person wants to “break free” from social constructs, they may be considered a rebel or an outsider. But if a whole movement decides to change the construct, then norms and society will change. This is another way that social constructs influence individuals just as much as society influences the creation and direction of social constructs.
Take the idea that “gender is a social construct.” Simply using this phrase is often a strategy for people making various points about gender and the existence and rights of transgender people. Reddit user Ness303 points out why it’s important to understand how social constructs are formed, and can change:
“When sociologists say that “gender is a social construct” what they mean is that our cisheteronomative society built the rules. It deems what behaviours are acceptable by whom, what role that person should play, how they should identify based on their ASAB. You must be cis, and straight, and act in a certain way and like certain things based on your ASAB. Cisheteronomative ideas have largely..been made up. It’s been constructed. In that sense “Gender” (gender roles and gender expression) in terms of how our cishet society sees it, is socially and culturally constructed. Therefore we can change the rules. We don’t need people to adhere to specific roles in society, or for them to dress or act a certain way. That should be an individaul choice, not a social demand.”
Social Constructs in Psychology
One of the great debates in psychology is that of nature vs. nurture. Is our behavior and personality determined by our genes, or by the environment around us?
Social constructs tend to sit on the nurture side of the debate. Let’s go back to the idea that a country is a social construct. If a country is a social construct, then so is the idea that you are “an American” or “a Nigerian.” Could this label that we give ourselves (or rather, that society gives us,) impact our personality and behavior?
Over the past 20 years, psychologists have created massive studies to determine whether “countries” had personalities. They sent out personality tests to tens of thousands of people around the globe. The results showed that countries did have higher or lower levels of the Big Five Personality Traits.
For example, a survey from 2005 revealed that Brazilians scored highest on levels of Extraversion. A survey from 2007 revealed that the Democratic Republic of Congo scored highest on levels of Agreeableness.
(Of course, these scores are based on the average score in the country. There are people in Brazil that are quite introverted and people in the DRC that are not so agreeable.) What do critics think influenced these scores? It’s not genes.
Factors like population density, climate, and healthcare could all influence these scores. Critics also believe that we tend to gravitate toward people who are similar to us – and that could influence how the citizens of one country find themselves in the same spot. Could it be that the country itself – and what it “means” to be American or what it “means” to be British, also have an influence on personality?
Are You A Social Construct?
One person who wrote about the link between personality and social constructs was George Herbert Mead. In Mind, Self, and Society, he wrote: “In short, social reconstruction and self or personality reconstruction are the two sides of a single process — the process of human social evolution.”
Mead believed that the concept of the self, or self-identity, was also a social construct. He also wrote, “The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoint of other individual members of the same social group.”
Am Mead trying to say that you don’t exist? Not exactly. But his argument that the self is a social construct is interesting to ponder. The way that we look at ourselves can be heavily influenced by social constructs and interactions with other humans. We compare ourselves to others. We label ourselves based on social constructs, and make decisions about behaving according to those labels or breaking free.
So if you want to see yourself in a different light, know that this is possible. “You” exist in an objective reality. Your identity isn’t permanent – so live the life you want to live!