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)


Chris Schoen said...

If you're going to lead with "race" as one of the major categories impacted by construction, it shouldn't disappear from your analysis entirely. Age has something of a biological component, as does (arguably) gender (though sex and gender are not identical, and the critical question is what sex really determines socially that originates in biology). The case for race is of course the most constructivist of all, since there are no valid grounds for associating arbitrary phenotypes like pigmentation, nose size, or slope of forehead, with secondary characteristics like intelligence or aggression. There is no phenomenon of race "out in the world." There is a phenomenon of superficial difference of appearance, but the notion of "racial" differences dividing humans into character groups is entirely constructed by social convention.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, age and sex seem more similar to each other, and race possibly quite different. I'm thinking and reading about race and haven't made up my mind.

Chris Schoen said...

I meant my point here a little more strongly than that. Once you observe that race is merely a social convention with no empirical underpinning (a fact universally accepted by biologists in 2017), it gets easier to see how the other categories you invoke rely far more on social consensus than actual biology. The supposed biological substrate of race (e.g. pigment) is a red herring; we don’t think of tall people, or green-eyed people, or people with a lot of moles as their own “races,” so obviously something else is at play in the notion that we can divide people into meaningful categories based on skin pigmentation (or eyelid folds, or what have you). It’s widely agreed among biologists that the notion of race itself is a pseudoscience, the history of which is easy to trace as an instrument of division and oppression (not just by white people, though we have made an art form of it).

The same red herring adheres to the conflation of sex and gender, the former being biological, the latter social. You can blur the distinction between the two by invoking a scale of constructionism from “modest” to ”extreme,” but this move obscures the most important fact about social construction, which is in the way we apply meaning to signifiers. It is one thing to have ovaries or testes, and another to be any of the myriad things that supposedly result from this bequest. It’s not as though constructivists propose that sex differences themselves are a social invention; constructivists happily (if anticlimactically) concede that women tend on average to be less muscularly strong than men, or to have a different endocrine profile, or inclination toward diseases carried in the sex chromosome. (All constructivists are "modest" constructivists.) The point of constructivism, rather, is that what we call “gender” is not the natural expression of biological sex, but rather the sum of our ideas about what roles we want and expect people of either sex to personify and display. Sex differences, of course, do not stop existing just because we identify various gender heterodoxies, but that was never the point. The question is whether, or to what degree, sex constrains gender, and simply pointing out that sex resiles where gender diverges doesn’t get you very far down that road.

s. wallerstein said...

Some things are more socially constructed than others.

Let's take age. You can argue over whether at age 50 you're old or not.
I'm 71, and every day I show more signs of old age from chronic sciatica to
small memory losses to insomnia to walking more slowly. There's a woman who works in my apartment building in her early 80's, who swears that you're only as old as you feel, but she's not very convincing, especially since she's growing deaf, her memory is weaker than mine, she can't climb the building stairs any more while I can.

Sex/gender seems partially socially constructed, and from what I can see, the jury is still out on how much of sex/gender is socially constructed: it's a question that future scientific investigation will hopefully answer some day.

Race, as is said above, is almost wholly or wholly socially constructed.

So we have to study each category (age, race, sex/gender, etc.) to see to what point it is socially constructed.

Foucault's work on madness, for example, is interesting in exploring to what extent "mental illness" is a social construction. As I recall, he does not deny that madness exists; he merely shows to what extent our categories about madness are socially constructed.