“But that’s just socially constructed…”

One of the fun things about education is that you get all sorts of fun new toys, ideas that magically seem to cut through all sorts of Gordian knots and whose mere invocation has occult intellectual powers that liberate one from previous difficulties. One of the favorite toys that people acquire is the idea that a trait or characteristic is “socially constructed.” The bad news is that this concept is not nearly as powerful as most of those who conjure with it assume.

In Mormon discussions it shows up most frequently in discussions of gender (see, e.g., this discussion), but it is so shiny and appealing an idea that one can apply it to all sorts of other issues, from property to race to disability. Most often it shows up when someone tries to draw a normative inference from some trait. Our toy is then invoked to defeat the supposed inference, by showing that the trait in question is “socially constructed.” It is also invoked against any defense of current practice or conditions, which one can always delegitimize by pointing out that they are “socially constructed.” In short, it is a sleek, progressive category that allows one to impress friends, defeat opponents, and demonstrate one’s understanding of the contingent and irony-drenched dynamics of the human condition. It’s very cool.

Essentialism is the mistake social construction is conjured to dismiss. This is the monstrous belief that traits or social arrangements reflected unchanging essences. Obviously, if some trait or arrangement, however, is merely a matter of convention — socially constructed — then essentialism is a mistake that can neither explain nor justify. Essentialism is extremely important if we are to have any fun at all with the concept of social construction. If we can find it lurking below the surface of every distasteful assertion, then we can always pull out social construction to send it reeling back into the abyss where troglodytes lurk and serious thought need not tread.

I actually don’t have much of a brief for essentialism. After all, I am a lawyer. I spend my life swimming — nay drowning — in the conventional. For me property, marriage, contract, and personhood itself are so many rules and agreements, and they shift from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that — for example — ownership means something different in Missouri than in Iowa that lets my employer charge clients large amount of money to move their dispute over property from one state to the other. Of course, one could respond that beneath the conventions there is a hard kernel of essences, and indeed it is these essence that justify — or criticize — the conventions. For all I know this may be right, but it is not my point.

Rather, my point is that the two most frequently drawn implications from the idea of social construction are wrong. The first implication is that which is socially constructed is prima facie illegitimate. The second implication is that which is socially constructed can be reconstructed along lines of our choosing. The law provides ready refutations of both claims. Take, for example, the idea of property. Most of what is contained in our ideas of ownership is conventional. Furthermore, in actual fact — i.e. in the actual operation of the legal system — the obligations and rights fixed by ownership vary a great deal from place to place and from one era to the next. In short, property is a made thing, a human institution created by norms and conventions that can and do change. It hardly follows from this, however, that property and the welter of rules that give it substance are unjustified. We can offer all sorts of reasons, for example, of why two kinds of wrongs against property — nuisance and trespass — are treated differently that really have nothing to do with the claims of essentialism. Furthermore, we can evaluate the power of these offered reasons without reference to essences.

Property also provides a good example of why one cannot imply the desirability (or even feasibility) of rational reconstruction from the fact of social construction. It would be a grave mistake to suppose that the conventional basis of property means that it can be recast into whatever form we might wish it to take, a fact abundantly testified to by the mountains of corpses piled up by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. The fact that something is conventional, that it is made by human beings, does not mean that it can be easily unmade or remade by human beings. Life and society is too complicated for that, and the emergent power of this complexity must, in decency, restrain us at times if we are not to have our consciences stained by the evil of unintended consequences.

The irony, of course, is that given its conservative roots the idea of social construction has generally been appropriated for progressive ends. Edmund Burke is as good a candidate for the role of prophet of social construction. In reaction to the rationalism of the French revolution that confidently sought social reconstruction, Burke argued that society was indeed a made thing, a web of conventions created by human beings, and having a long history of change and development. Yet this was precisely what made the French philosphes mistaken in Burke’s view. Human conventions are like a complex ecosystem that we tamper with at our peril. Although he is not explicit on the point, I can’t think it accidental that Burke was trained as a lawyer. His 18th-century legal education would contained large doses of Coke, Hale, and Seldon, the great historical jurisprudes of the 17th-century. Coke famously argued that the common law was a kind of “artificial reason,” that is a set of conventional solutions to social problems evolved over a long period and containing a wisdom that could not be reduced to “natural reason,” i.e. essential, ahistorical rationality.

Burke, of course, went too far. He argued that social conventions contained the accumulated wisdom of the ages that by definition could not be grasped rationally. The problem is that on this view our very ignorance of a things justification can be taken as evidence of its legitimacy. The result is that we have no way of distinguishing between the ineffable wisdom of the ages, and silliness that just has the good fortune of being old. The problem is really thorny, however, because Burke is also clearly right. The conventional can be an ineffable incarnation of the ages. Whatever else this paradox shows, it demonstrates the vacuousness of most invocations of the idea of “social construction.” It is a toy that simply doesn’t have the magical powers that its devotees assume.

37 comments for ““But that’s just socially constructed…”

  1. here, here. i was thinking about this topic this week.

    as an undergraduate i remember a literature class where the entire lecture hall was handcuffed by one student’s rebuttal: “but gender is JUST a social construct!”

    (probably only a handful had any idea what she was trying to talk about. the professor nodded in complete agreement. and the day was won by what was little more than a clever rhetorical trick. after all, this student sounded right.

    but where does “JUST” come from? to take your example, property law, its history development, variation, and theory can be very rich and interesting. While there may be no Platonic code that all property law aspires to, or even very little essential to property law systems– we cannot dismiss property law as silly, uninteresting, or unworthy merely because it is socially constructed.

    yet, as you say, in casual conversation, “such-and-such is a mere creature of social construction” is usually enough to win the day.

  2. Nate, I’m going to disagree with both of your implications:

    “The first implication is that which is socially constructed is prima facie illegitimate.”

    But whether the bloggernacle commentor makes it explicit or not, I think the assumption is not that the social construction is prima facie illegitimate but rather that the effects of the social construction are detrimental to the Saints. For example, I’ve never seen a discussion railing against gendered bathrooms (and I don’t think those are harmful). But I have seen diatribes (heck, I’ve written some of them) against the belief that women are more spiritual than men. Not because I and others can’t handle gender differences, but because that statement (which I firmly believe represents a social construction and not an essential difference) does (or is) the following things:

    (1) is a justification for church practices that God has commanded but not justified (i.e., an explanation of why women don’t hold the priesthood. While I believe that God has affirmed that set-up, God has not provided reasons–and not this reason–for that arrangment)

    (2) becomes an excuse for the poor behavior of men (home teaching stats, EQ lessons not prepared, etc.)

    (3) becomes an excuse to not credit women for the ‘spiritual’ behavior that does in fact take work on their parts.

    “The second implication is that which is socially constructed can be reconstructed along lines of our choosing. ”

    But the inverse of this is that we cannot improve our behavior, change our outlook, or better ourselves. These beliefs seem completely incompatible with the gospel to me–if we cannot repent, improve, seek God, try to be more like God in thought and deed–what’s the point? The fact that Pol Pot et al screwed up big time in trying to change property rules doesn’t delegitimate the efforts of others to change property rules to remove unacceptable elements that are social constructions (i.e., not allowing women to own property in their own names).

    “The fact that something is conventional, that it is made by human beings, does not mean that it can be easily unmade or remade by human beings.”

    In the space of less than a century, we’ve gone from women not having legal access and/or social
    approval to buy and own and manage property, control their fertility (not that this is always a good thing, but I digress), seek the highest levels of education, function in society as autonomous human beings, etc.

    I had hoped when I started reading your post that you might make a more nuanced (and, in my opinion, more persuasive) argument that social construction in some way reflected God’s intent for humanity. Hence, social constructions shouldn’t be dismissed as social constructions without careful consideration as to whether they reflect God’s will. While not an unproblematic position, that one holds water better than what you have sketched above.

  3. Of course, there is also the “toy” of marginalizing intellectual approaches to various problems by calling them toys. But I suppose that is another post.

  4. Julie: In response to your first point, I don’t think that the fact that something is or is not socially constructed tells us whether or not it is desirable. I actually think that essences are invoked in arguments far less often than consequences, but once one is armed with the hammer of social construction then everything looks like a nail, even when the essence must be implied in order to make the point. This just strikes me as sloppy and lazy thinking. In other words, I agree with you but it seems to me that this implies that most of the time invoking the concept of social construction does little or no work.

    In response to your second argument, you are reading my position as much stronger than it is. This is what I think of as the Burkean Paradox. Burke, I think, is correct that the historically emergent order of institutions frequently instantiates the wisdom and benefits of experience that cannot be fully grasped through conscious rationalization. The problem, of course, is that Burke is not right all of the time. Sometimes pointless historical institutions really are just pointless. The Burkean argument doesn’t tell us which is which. On the other hand, niether does the socially constructed objection. What Burke does powerfully illustrate is that “socially constructed” is not identical with “maleable” or “arbitary.” Some conventions are maleable and arbitrary, some are not. Invoking the concept of social construction doesn’t tell us anything either way.

    You think that I am arguing against change. I am not. I am simply arguing against glib belief that by labelling something a social construct one has disposed of the real objection. At the end of the day, I don’t think that the distinction between the conventional and the natural really tells us all that much. Indeed, I suspect that in most cases we can entirely ignore the distinction and get straight to the business of arguing the case in other terms, ie consequences, etc..

  5. Costanza: If you are going to deconstruct my polemic, please do so completely. Not only do I marginalize the idea by referring to it as a toy, I also marginalize it by referring to its supposed efficacy as a kind of occult magic. Both images are meant to imply that the use of the term is not intellectually serious. The joys of rhetoric!

  6. Nate:

    “most of the time invoking the concept of social construction does little or no work.”

    But usually the essentialist is assuming that the behavior either can’t or shouldn’t be changed because it is essential. So pointing out that it is constructed seems a necessary first step. I do agree with you that it is just that: a first step, not the end of the discussion. So I suppose I agree with you that “most of the time” it does no work, but I think that at the beginning of the discussion it does some essential (oops) work.

    “Some conventions are maleable and arbitrary, some are not. Invoking the concept of social construction doesn’t tell us anything either way.”

    Yes, but, again, invoking the idea of social construction is a necessary first step if your opponent thinks that the matter under discussion is ‘essential’ and therefore unchangeable.

    “I am not. I am simply arguing against glib belief that by labelling something a social construct one has disposed of the real objection.”

    No argument there.

  7. Julie: I suppose that the problem is that I have seen the argument deployed so many times against non-essentialists or have seen it deployed as though it were final. For example, I can’t tell you how many arguments I have seen or read in legal theory in which someone insists that legal rule X is just a social construction damn it, as though this wasn’t totally obvious to everyone in the room.

  8. Nate, as a child of the late 60s I first wrestled with this topic when confronting the argument that marriage was pointless because it is “just a piece of paper, man.” As a young LDS teenager it seemed logically persuasive if not religiously so. Then one day the thought struck me that $100 bills and the pink slip to a 1968 Pontiac GTO were also just pieces of paper, yet I had no problem seeing their value and desireability. The argument of social construction lost a lot of its appeal that day.

  9. Great post, Nate.

    I think Julie is right, though, that the fact that a rule is a social construction usually isn’t “totally obvious to everyone in the room.” For example, you see this kind of thing all the time in debates about intellectual property, even among intelligent people. The fact that intellectual property is a social construction is even more obvious than for real property, but people are always claiming that it is essential, by analogy to real property which they also believe is essential.

  10. One of the favorite toys that people acquire is the idea that a trait or characteristic is “socially constructed.�

    Another on the opposite side, of course, is that various facets of our natures are essentially determined by evolution—another widely-weilded tool I imagine you disdain.

    We have, I think, inherited a jumble of biological and cultural legacies that coexist in varying degrees of uneasy mixture and fruitful tension. What “is” has often persisted because it “worked,” at least at some point, for somebody, and ought not be blithely cast aside (and can rarely be changed abruptly anyway). Both biological/psychological instincts and cultural structures represent a sort of algorithmic compression of knowledge gleaned from the lives (what has worked!) and, especially, the deaths (what hasn’t worked!) of countless individuals, groups, businesses, societies, etc.

    Having said that, times change, and what worked once doesn’t always remain relevant. I think it is well to understand as well as possible these variegated legacies, in order that we may more intelligently use them as building blocks, choosing both how to deal with them and reign them in (on the negative side) and how they might be satisfied and harnessed (on the positive side).

    Which is why, Nate, you should get more interested in evolution (I’m not holding my breath). ;-)

  11. Christian, if they are evolutionarily created, can they truly be called essential? After all one might argue that with sufficient technology they could be changed.

  12. Nate: The second implication is that which is socially constructed can be reconstructed along lines of our choosing.

    Does anyone–outside of first-year undergrads–really take this claim seriously? Isn’t this a straw man? Perhaps not, but (with the noted exceptions) I’ve not yet run into anyone who believes either that to say that something is socially constructed is to say that its existence / construction is arbitrary or, in your terms, that we can resconstruct it however we wish. The idea that ethics, for example, is socially constructed is at least as old as Aristotle, but no Aristotelian would argue that ethics is arbitrary.

  13. “I’ve not yet run into anyone who believes either that to say that something is socially constructed is to say that its existence / construction is arbitrary”

    Jim, isn’t this argument made fairly frequently by certain feminist theorists for example? Now it may be that the argument is in fact that gender is conventional and gender roles are unjust and hence it is arbitrary. On this view, the notion of injustice rather than convention may be the basis of the arbitrariness claim, but it seems to me that sometimes social construction is put forward as evidence of arbitrariness simpliciter.

    My understanding of Aristotle is that ethics are conventional, but that we can judge them by how well they realize the telos of human nature. In other words, there is a substratum of essence that makes sense of the conventional. As I take it, most modern invocations of the social construction would deny the underlying essence.

  14. Clark, you have to take off your philosopher’s hat and put your native physicist’s hat back on, at least for a minute. Instincts forged over tens and hundreds of thousands of years become “essential” on the time scale of a human lifetime.

    (It brings me great joy to know that the fact that physicists’ tendency to only be as precise as occasion demands brings tears to the eyes of philosophers as well as mathematicians.)

  15. I’d have to agree with Jim here. Nate’s applications of the “social construction” argument do seem a little caricaturish, and I say this having recently emerged from seven years of grad school in the humanities and arts, in the company of feminists, Marxists, queer theorists, and all manner of lefty academics.

    it seems to me that sometimes social construction is put forward as evidence of arbitrariness simpliciter.

    Not in my experience. In fact, I’ve encountered quite the opposite: the recognition of “social construction” serves as a launching point for determining the unfolding of social, economic, cultural, and/or political forces behind that construction. Simply recognizing that, had society constructed Thing X a different way, it could have ended up differently, in no way implies that it doesn’t matter that society ended up constructing X the way it did, or that X has no value.

  16. Jeremy: It is caricaturish, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be caricatured. My point is not that social construction is left-wing plot (having assigned authorship — arbitrarily to be sure — to Burke this would be odd), but rather that when it gets invoked as a normative concept it is generally a make weight that doesn’t help us much. Lest you think that I have the humanities in mind, I can assure you that conjuring with social construction is alive and well in the legal thinking…

  17. You miss my point Christian. If genetic code is the “essence” but genetic code can both be manipulated (either directly or indirectly through gene therapy, drugs or the like) or can simply be misencoded (mutations, etc.) then there isn’t an essence.

    Thus, to pick a controversial example, there may be an “essential” instinct to be attracted to the opposite sex. That attraction clearly has an evolutionary basis. Yet perhaps some set of genes doesn’t manifest this instinct. Thus the essence is undermined.

    It’s no different than saying pigmentation is essential to humans yet simultaneously acknowledging albinos.

    So no philosopher’s hat necessary. I was thinking purely technologically.

  18. OK, Nate, I’m totally with you that ‘it is just a social contruction’ is not ever the end of the argument. But your post made it sound as if you thought it should never be the beginning of an argument and I think that sometimes it must be.

  19. Clark, laying aside the fact that even biologically it’s genetic code alone, I’m not saying that every last detail of the genetic code must be part of the essence (indeed since humans are genetically unique there would be no essential characteristics of homo sapiens if this were required), nor even that everything with an evolutionary basis must be either. Things perturbable by gene therapy or mutation across a few generations without disrupting normal development (remember I’m talking “essence” across a human lifespan) would not likely be part of the essence. Skin color is not essential to humanity even if it has a geographical and climatic evolutionary basis. And sexual desire might be essential even if sexual orientation is not.

    Anyway, what I’m getting at is there are cultural and biological features that are largely conserved on time scales compared to a human lifetime. Now maybe “essence” is the wrong term, but it was the only option to social construction offered here. Certainly much of what we are is “software” (learning and social construction), but some is “hardware” (essence), and probably a large amount is between these—something like “firmware” (strong inherited tendencies but either perceivably plastic or limitedly reprogrammable across a human lifetime). Also, being a philosophical philistine I don’t know the extent to which the concept of “essence” allows continuous variety within a range that nevertheless signifies, as a whole, a distinct class—a mean with a standard deviation, for instance. If it doesn’t, “essence” would seem to be an essentially (!) useless concept.

  20. I guess what I’m saying Christian is that for any aspect of the genetic code we can find individuals that don’t have it. (Neglecting those necessary for survival) There was, for example, an article in New Scientist a few months back about those with no sexual orientation at all. If there is a genetic basis for orientation/desire then clearly that makes sense.

    The problem is that “essence” is unstable.

    To your later point about whether this means “essence” is useless. Some certainly argue that. I don’t. But I think we have to be careful how we apply it.

  21. Nate, please don’t misunderstand me as advocating constructivism. In the post of mine that you link to, I argue state my position that gender essentialism has no cognitive content. But, (as indicated in Comment #18 of that post) I disavow construction as well.

    For my part, I buy (hook, line and sinker) Hume’s critique of the self. The notion of a unified self, at it’s core, is meaningless because there is no adequate criteria for distinguishing it from anything else. Thus, the question of whether its has essential or constructed characteristics is meaningless.

    (You’ll note that my fun toy that magically cuts through all sorts of Gordian knots is the theory of verification, but you and I have discussed that before at length when I was writing as Arturo Toscanini.)

    In any case, perhaps my next guest post somewhere will address the fact that I don’t believe that there is any such thing as self-esteem.

  22. DKL: Even if there are no selves, there are still institutions — like property or contract — and frankly I find them a lot more interesting. I don’t think it is non-sensical to talk about them in terms of convention or nature.

    Obviously, I don’t care for the verification thesis. It seems to me to confuse epistemology and language. It is one thing to say that statement X cannot be verified, it is quite another to say that it is meaningless.

  23. Nate, as you know, I use a different formulation of the verification than the one you offer.

    But the law has a different ontology than the one explored by philosophers, and existence within this ontology isn’t defined as Quine would define it (being the value of a bound variable) but by being the object of some law judicial decision. And if semantic meaninglessness held any sway in the law, then few decisions would be safe and no laws whatever.

  24. There have been plenty of fine things said about this, here and elsewhere. I’ve often tried to find some decent point hidden in all the talk of “social construction” (the popular, cheap lefty kind of talk–after all there is a whole bunch of serious body of work in, e.g. sociology of knowledge, that employs the term quite sensibly). After all, on its face it just seems to be too obvious and egregious a blunder. I still haven’t found the hidden point. But it is interesting to note that 100 years ago many many people on the left were claiming that certain arrangements were good and just from the fact that they were fated to arise–now we see a sizable part of the academic left trashing things simply on the grounds that they weren’t and aren’t fated to arise.

  25. Congrats, Nate on your William and Mary Law School appointment. Does this mean less bloggernacle participation? Or more?

  26. Nate,
    I’m having a little trouble sorting through this trail (and it may well be my interest span not the qualify of the conversation. . . .). Is this where you are? Social construction may well be a useful way for looking at life and history. But, alas, it has been used in stupid ways.

  27. That is about right. In particular, stading alone I don’t think it is particularlly powerful normative concept one way or another. Furthermore, the mistaken belief that it is leads many to assume — incorrectly — that those who disagree with them are falling into some sort of essentialism, a sin that is committed for less often than most assume.

  28. “This is the monstrous belief that traits or social arrangements reflected unchanging essences.”

    “essentialism, a sin that is committed for less often than most assume.”

    So, what is essentialism, exactly, and why is it sin? I am confused.

  29. “The second implication is that which is socially constructed can be reconstructed along lines of our choosing.

    Does anyone–outside of first-year undergrads–really take this claim seriously?”

    Maybe Nate is primarily talking about philosophers and such, in which case Jim F.’s point holds, but I think social construction=illegitimate has worked its way into the popular consciousness. I’ve encountered the idea more often than I can say, and I hardly ever consort with philosophers.

  30. Adam, essentialism in the field of gender is roughly equivalent to the belief that biology is destiny. Some silly people object to the fact that only women can bear offspring. Some not-silly people object to the fact that educational and professional accomplishment in women is devalued, or women’s access to the same obstructed, because they can bear offspring. There can be equally damaging effects for men as well if they fail to conform to stereotypes. Essentialism can be an element of racial prejudice as well, where it takes the form “All people of type X have the quality Y, and so therefore they should all Z.”
    I’d guess the popular consciousness tends to operate around or slightly below the level of a first-year undergrad. If social construction is filtering into the popular consciousness, that’s progress.

    Nate, one advantage of the statement “gender roles are socially constructed” is that it is true. For someone emerging from a “Fascinating Womanhood” world, the discovery that faux-macho masculinity and fragile blossom womanhood are not foreordained behaviors can be fresh and new and exciting. Yes, it can be taken to silly excess, but it also allows the important questions to be asked in the first place. The family and much else that we believe in are social constructions, but they have very good reasons to be constructed as they are, and it’s a useful step to be able to enumerate and defend those reasons.

  31. Jonathan: As to gender, while I think that much of it is socially constructed, I think that we are gravely mistaken if we think that biology has nothing to do with human habits and behaviors. Sorting out what is what is difficult, complicated, dangerous, and no-doubt in many cases impossible. Yet is precisely this fact that makes the reliance on “social construction” so grating to me. It obscures at least as much as it reveals…

  32. As it so happens there was a wave of popularity of Fascinating Womanhood in our area recently. I haven’t read the book, and my wife sort doesn’t want me too, lest I discover the tricks she’s using to manipulate me…

  33. Nate: I maintain that the concept of social construction reveals somewhat more than it obscures, because you can’t analyze something until you realize that it is amenable to analysis.

    Christian: The author was once my mother’s visiting teacher. Borrow a copy and read it for amusement’s sake, if nothing else.

  34. #33 and #34:
    Isn’t this part of the reason the Proclamation is such a revolutionary and exciting document (although sometimes dismissed as old-fashioned or simple-minded)? (See also Elder Bednar’s recent talk in the general leadership broadcast, which touched on male/female differences and marriage.) I think the Proclamation (and our prophets) can help us ferret out what just IS (or is supposed to be) and what is socially constructed regarding family, marriage, gender, etc. So necessary in today’s world!

    (For example, I recently read a book talking about how groups at the UN somehow came up with five different genders, also leaving room for more socially constructed definitions. Without some anchors in place (such as are provided by the Proclamation, for example), social constructionism can take on a (sometimes scary) life of its own.)

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