Modest Social Construction

Lately I've been reading about "social construction"—what do people really mean when they say race or gender or anything else is socially constructed?  Talking about categories being socially constructed often seems to me to be a very misleading shorthand for a bunch of other things. What we often really want to say is that there is a certain phenomenon out in the world, but people think about it—divide it up—in different ways.  So, for example, there is the phenomenon of aging—it's surely a real part of biological organisms.  But it can be represented in different ways.  So one cultural group sees a 16-year-old as a child, while another sees a 16-year-old as an adult.  One cultural group thinks you're old by the age of 50, but another thinks you're just "middle aged."

Someone might say "age is socially constructed" to express all of that. And I do think people use the phrase that way. But recognizing this sort of constructing isn't as liberatory as social constructionism is supposed to be.  If age is socially constructed in this modest sense, it's not as if age would stop existing, if we didn't think about it.  It's also not as if we could replace current age distinctions with just any distinctions. Like a block of wood can be cut in multiple ways but not in all ways, aging has a certain amount of inherent structure.  You can't think of a five-year-old as an adult, though you may or may not think of a 16-year-old as an adult. So if age is socially constructed in this modest sense, our current categories are not inevitable, but age as a general phenomenon is inevitable, and all alternative ways of thinking about it are not equally possible.

I think this sort of modest social constructionism might be apt for thinking about some of the categories often represented as constructed. Sex, for example, seems socially constructed only in this modest sense and not in the extreme sense. We can draw lines in different ways, but sex is an independent reality in the natural world.  Animals and plants are sexed, it seems to me, even if there are some "grey area" cases.  I wonder how many supposedly socially constructed categories are actually only socially constructed in this fairly modest sense.

Bibliography (in case you're interested);

Ron Mallon, The Construction of Human Kinds
New Books in Philosophy interview of Mallon 
Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?
Asta Sveinsdottir, "The Social Construction of Human Kinds" (I'm about to read this, and might discuss in my next post)


New Books in Philosophy

I enjoyed having the chance to talk about my new book with Bob Talisse on the podcast New Books in philosophy! 

Historical Categories

Trans, by Rogers Brubaker, is a great book for those wanting to think about parallels between being transgender and being transracial.  Brubaker thinks being transracial is more of a thing than you might think (he has some fascinating examples that go beyond the Rachel Dolezal case), and he thinks it's illuminating to think about the two phenomena in parallel.  I recommend the book.

Here's one area of difference that he highlights (see pp. 135-142): gender is an individual matter, on any account.  We don't have our gender because of anything about our ancestors. Naturalists think we have our gender because of biological properties of our bodies. One trans-friendly view that's starting to challenge naturalism is the view that we have our gender based on our  sense of our own gender identity.  It's not a huge leap from the naturalistic view to the psychological view, since the sense of our own gender identity is another individual property. When it comes to race, though, ancestry—a question of history— is thought to be important. For example, to be black, arguably, one must have black ancestors. It would be a huge leap to replace the ancestry/history account of being black with a psychological view, since history is non-individualistic, but psychology is individualistic.  So the idea that someone could be "trans black"—black based on a sense of being black, and despite having no black ancestors—doesn't go down easily.

On this view, we're likely to be more open to trans-X when we already think about X individualistically, and merely have to shift to a different individualistic basis for X.  But we're likely to reject trans-X when we think about X non-individualistically.  I think this is confirmed when we think about various properties that depend on a person's life history, "outside the skin."  Being a veteran is having fought in a war.  If you didn't you're not a veteran, no matter how much you identify as one. Being a Penn State Alumnus is having graduated from Penn State. You're not one, no matter how much of a Penn State fan you are. Being a New Yorker is having lived for a significant period of time in New York. You don't get to be one by just acting like a New Yorker.  There's something to this idea that properties with a basis in non-individualistic facts are ones we're particularly reluctant to think about in a "trans" fashion.

Anyhow.  Good book, with lots of food for thought!