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What Is A Social Construct?
How social constructs influence our reality.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” - Phillip K. Dick
A social construct is an idea, concept, or category that has been created by society rather than something inherent in nature or the physical world. If reality is that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it, as Phillip K. Dick said, then a social construct is that which only goes away when we all collectively stop believing in it but remains if only a single individual chooses to stop believing in it.
The most powerful social construct in the world is money. There is no inherent value to pieces of paper with ink printed on them. You can’t eat them. You can’t use them for shelter. Yet, society has collectively agreed that currency has value. If one day all of society decided that money no longer had value, it would be worthless. However, if you individually realize that “money is just ink on paper” your reality would not change. Rent would still be due. Since social constructs are created collectively, changing them requires collective change as well.
While some might be resistant to the idea of social constructs, it can be useful to have language to distinguish between that which is socially constructed and material. For example, the idea that pink is a girl’s color and blue is a boy’s color is a social construct. It could just as easily be the other way around and was at one point in history. The idea that a man without a uterus cannot give birth is not a social construct. No matter how much I might believe otherwise, I will never be able to give birth with my body, absent some unnatural scientific breakthrough. Using different terms for the unchanging physical reality, such as “biological sex,” and social constructs, such as “gender,” provides a useful distinction in some cases.
Though some activists dismiss all cultural conventions as “just a social construct,” the reason behind social constructs is often an aspect of reality rather than an arbitrary decision. For example, there is a social construct that when a pregnant woman enters public transportation, able-bodied men will give up their seat for her. Men do not have to do this. This social construct is based in the reality that pregnancy is physically demanding for women and able-bodied men have an easier time standing. The social construct was created in response to an unchangeable physical reality. Dismissing this convention as just a social construct around gender would cause physical discomfort for pregnant women whose emotional state influences their children.
Social constructs can influence physical reality. If social constructs award status to those who do not reproduce, such as celibate priests during the reign of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, then those drawn to that form of social status will remove themselves from the genetic future of that society. While the idea that “Catholic priests cannot marry or have children” is just a social construct, the construct changes physical reality. The construct of a celibate priesthood is influenced by the other social construct that parents pass their wealth on to their children. Celibacy keeps power within the church since priests have no offspring to inherit it. While other spiritual leaders might marry and have children, this social construct served a political function in Medieval society that influenced physical reality.
We cannot fully separate social constructs and physical reality, since one influences the other. Social constructs often arise from physical reality and in turn, influence the material reality of societies that accept them. Every society around the world is a result of this cycle, which is comparable to the influence of nature and nurture in childhood. While many have debated which is more important, there is evidence that one influences the other. Childhood trauma has an epigenetic impact, and parents act from their own genetic influences. In the same way, social constructions impact physical reality, and physical reality influences which social constructions will arise.
Social constructs are unavoidable. Rather than polarized political debates over what is and isn’t a social construct, it might be more useful to talk about how social constructs serve us or don’t. Many aspects of society that are “just a social construct” still serve us, like able-bodied men standing for pregnant women in public spaces. Many are created to serve certain political interests, like those around the priesthood of the Middle Ages. Underlying political conflicts over what is and isn’t a social construct are often competing visions for what society should be and whether or not social constructs serve those visions.