Social constructs or social constructions define meanings, notions, or connotations that are assigned to objects and events in the environment and to people’s notions of their relationships to and interactions with these objects. In the domain of social constructionist thought, a social construct is an idea or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not represent reality, so it remains largely an invention or artifice of a given society.
Games are an example of socially constructed entities and often exist because of certain sets of conventional rules. These sets of social conventions and agreement to abide by them give games their meaning in any given social context. The game of football could be played in any way, but there have developed over the years known conventional rules governing the players, spectators, and the game’s organization. The meaning given to games is therefore socially constructed.
Gender, which represents ways of talking, describing, or perceiving men and women, is also a socially constructed entity. Generally distinguished from sex (which is biological), notions of gender represent attempts by society, through the socialization process, to construct masculine or feminine identities and corresponding masculine or feminine gender roles for a child based on physical appearance and genitalia.
Social class is yet another socially constructed entity. While most scholars agree that class appears to represent a universal phenomenon, its meaning is often contextually located because what determines class varies from one society to another, and even within a culture different people may likely have different notions of class determinants.
Depending on the constructionist perspective, social construction may be the outcome of human choices rather than of immutable laws of nature. Here, then, lies the core issue over which social scientists diverge. Are human ideas and conceptions generated more on subjective criteria than on objective realities? Debates have raged in the social sciences along the divide of science versus objective truth. In the social construction of reality, the question has often been asked: To what extent is our claim to knowledge supported by reality? In other words, to what extent is this claim a social construct? Some writers believe that to the extent that knowledge is aligned with reality, it approximates objective truth; anything less represents a social construct. According to this thinking, even morality is a social construct. However, others believe that all knowledge is social construction.
The basis of this debate—in fact the point of departure among scholars—is the claim that social constructions are based on social facts and surrounding social conventions. Thus constructions based on “facts”—facts that are not ontologically dependent on the social structures and conventions of society—are not. However, Ian Hacking (1999) believes that there are few if any “universal constructionists,” in which case few people would argue that the sun or DNA are socially constructed, existing entirely independently of that construction. On the contrary, the social arena is quite different, as vital social realities are socially constructed, existing by virtue of that social construction by people over time and space. This seeming narrow threshold between scientific construction and social constructs presents problems in social analysis—indeed hard nuts that need to be cracked and cracked satisfactorily.
In the resulting ongoing science wars, one side argues that scientific results, including even those of basic physics, are socially constructed. Others protest, arguing that these results are usually discoveries about our world; they are not the production of society but exist independently of consciousness. However, some sociologists, such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor (1982), have taken a relativist view of social construction, claiming that any notion is as good as the other. Thus, for instance, if a new social construction of the Holocaust emerges, arguing that claims about Nazi extermination camps are exaggerated and that the gas chambers are a fiction, that view may well then be at par with other beliefs about the same phenomena, though this may represent historical revisionism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that constructionists attempt to sort out their notions and beliefs using standards of their own convictions and culture.
Peter Cohen (1990), in his discussion of drug use as a social construct, argues that concepts used to describe and explain the phenomenon of drug use are surrounded by bias, a bias produced by a cultural dependency rather than drug use itself. The so-called scientific analysis of drug use, he argues, has often been used as an instrument for survival of the most powerful; power is not only relevant to decision making and resource allocation but also to the social construction of ideology and morality. Scientific constructions and concepts are thus developed according to the interests and tastes of people in power (a trend that is inescapable though may not be justified), and so these constructions often fit into conventional standpoints on topics of research.
The implications of these varying constructionist positions is that, once again, it is not often clear what is, or what should be, socially constructed. Radical constructionism best underscores this basic problem in social construction. Radical constructionists are concerned, for instance, with the domain of technology, with showing how social processes affect the content of technology and what it means for technology to be seen as working. They claim that the meaning of technology, including facts about its workings, are themselves social constructs. Similarly, on the social construction of reality, radical constructionists believe that the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself and that knowledge is a self-organized cognitive process of the human brain, a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data. If this is so, it is impossible to determine the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.
The problem of social construction has become more pronounced in different constructions of race based on diverging claims on racial distinctions. For instance, while William A. Darity Jr. (2003) has argued that race does not exist because there is no biogenetic basis for racial classifications, studies from Stanford University tend to contradict this claim by suggesting that the way people classify themselves by race reflects real and clear genetic differences among them. They argue that people of different races, even within the same population, have different ancestries, meaning that different genes are inherited from ancestors. However, Hacking (1999) insists that research studies have tended to challenge the idea of race by presenting evidence that the scientific basis for racial distinctions is based on shaky grounds.
Attempts to confine race to social construction appear to be based on the potential dangers of emotions that may be triggered by suggestions that racial differences reflect meaningful biogenetic differences. This has meant that some experts are inclined to publicize the idea that race does not exist. For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious medical journal, editorialized on May 3, 2001, “In medicine there is only one race, the human race.”
But as a social construct, connotations of race change as social, political, historical, and economic structures of society change. Rodney D. Coates (2004) argues that notions of race are created for people to fit into, to raise consciousness in line with conceptual boxes so created, and often to generate racial outcomes, for instance, notions of racial inequality to produce racial superiority. He observes that the construct “black” has in fact changed over time and space, and he questions whether our conceptions of “blacks” have correspondingly changed with the lived experiences and reality of blacks. This invariably reveals the dynamic nature of social reality. If constructions of this lived reality fail to reflect that dynamism, it may become an invalid analytic or discursive unit, that is, a unit or object of analysis or discussion and debate.
Stephen Spencer (2000) has further asked: If race is a social construct, of what is it precisely constructed if not the scientifically invalid false consciousness of biological race? He argues that it is as necessary to problematize the social construction of race as it is to question its scientific construction. He concludes that for those who believe in biological construction of race but not in its social construction, the basis of their construction has an underlying biological conception, whether or not they admit that. Such constructions often create false consciousness, producing uncertainty as to what are or are not social differences and ultimately creating a new consciousness, a new social reality.
These questions highlight the problem of what is and what is not a social construct. The answer may well lie in the fact that it all depends on the researcher’s politics, theoretical orientation, discipline, position in the class structure, or cultural context. It remains that people may often attempt to justify self-serving definitions, but this raises yet another fundamental question: Can this alter consensus on the validity of concepts? It is apt at this point to note that the use of invalid concepts in social research, public discourse, or policy debates may in fact lead to reification. However, in scientific construction, researchers must move outside the boxes of existing notions of matters of investigation to evaluate and analyze issues on such matters from radically different assumptions, even the assumptions of their disciplines (Coates 2004).
SEE ALSO Communication; Critical Theory; Femininity; Gender; Linguistic Turn; Masculinity; Meaning; Race; Social Theory
Barnes, Barry. 1974. Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Barnes, Barry, and David Bloor. 1982. Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge. In Rationality and Relativism, eds. Martin Hollis and Stephen Lukes, 21-47. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Coates, Rodney D., ed. 2004. Race and Ethnicity: Across Time, Space, and Discipline. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.
Cohen, Peter. 1990. Drugs as a Social Construct. PhD diss., Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Darity, William A., Jr. 2003. Racial/Ethnic Employment Discrimination, Segregation, and Health. American Journal of Public Health 93 (2): 226-231.
Darity, William A., Jr., and P. L. Mason. 1988. Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender. Journal of Economic Perspectives 12 (2): 63-90.
Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kalekin-Fishman, Devorah, Hanan Bruen, and Miriam Ben-Peretz. 1986. Perception and Interpretation of Vocal Music: Constructs of Social Groups. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 17 (1): 53-72.
Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
Spencer, Stephen. 2000. Popular Culture and the Rural Dream: Cultural Contexts and the Literary History of the Good Earth. Atenea (June): 125-138.
Spencer, Stephen. 2000. “Racing” Whiteness: American Culture and Construction of Race. Paper presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, April 8.
Frederick Ugwu Ozor
"Social Constructs." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 12, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-constructs
"Social Constructs." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 12, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-constructs
The process of creating social reality by individuals, groups, or organizations in interaction with social structure is often termed social construction. Sociologist W. I. Thomas defined the concept of the situation as, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572). And this theorem demonstrates that human perceptions in large and small ways create the social world.
While individuals actively participate in creating social reality, simultaneously, they are influenced by social reality. Human behaviors, everyday interactions, and social life do not occur in random fashion; rather daily experiences in the social world are patterned based on the organizing of individuals, groups, and organizations. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman presented, “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product” (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 61).
Different perspectives and research approaches are used to investigate social construction and its results. Social scientists have used the term social construction to emphasize how identity, roles, statuses, knowledge, and institutions are created and maintained relating with other members of society in socio-historical context. Postmodern theorists demonstrate how social reality is constructed by deconstructing in various ways what is taken as reality. For instance, some postmodern researchers deconstruct knowledge to demonstrate a totalizing general theory or an ultimate truth is misguided.
The creation of identity, the sense of self, demonstrates how the social construction works at the individual level, how significant it is to an individual in various contexts, and how individual identity creation is a reflection of social structure. Individual identity is formed by social processes in different socio-historical contexts. So identity can be fluid, situated, multidimensional, and interactive between individual consciousness and social structure. Identity is created, re-created, and maintained by reacting upon the given social structure and personal characteristics.
Social psychological studies have focused on how social structure intersects with individuals’ construction of identity. Many studies focus on people experiencing identity struggles, especially managing lower status in the hierarchical order of social life. For example, creation of sexual identity in relation to majority culture is complicated and is a particular struggle for those belonging to marginalized or stigmatized groups, such as homosexuals. It is through interacting with others and by learning cultural norms and values that individuals become aware of which sexual identity is desirable and appropriate in society. Thus, for homosexuals, construction and maintaining of their sexual identity is the socio-political process of obtaining legitimacy.
Social scientists have incorporated various types of research methods to explore the process and consequence of social construction. These include in-depth interviews, participant observation, ethnomethodology, documentary-historical studies, discourse analysis, experiments, and surveys.
SEE ALSO Interactionism, Symbolic; Sociology, Micro-
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckman. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
Calhoun, Craig, et al. 2002. Contemporary Sociological Theory. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
Howard, Judith. 2000. Social Psychology of Identities. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 367-393.
Seidman, Steven. 1994. The End of Sociological Theory. In The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives in Social Theory, ed. Steven Seidman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, William I., and Dorothy Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.
Hyejin Iris Chu
"Social Constructionism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 12, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-constructionism
"Social Constructionism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 12, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-constructionism
The term formally entered the sociological vocabulary through Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), a treatise on the sociology of knowledge, which attempts an innovative synthesis of the ideas of Émile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead. For Berger and Luckmann, the basic features of social order are captured in the principle that ‘Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product’. Their major case-study of social constructionism was religion (see Berger 's The Social Reality of Religion, 1969
), but at the same time the labelling theory of deviance was being developed and popularized, suggesting in parallel fashion that deviance is socially constructed. Similarly, within the sociology of education, researchers were deploying arguments derived from the work of Mary Douglas and Basil Bernstein to the effect that educational knowledge was also socially constructed. From a number of somewhat different sources, therefore, the more general phraseology of constructionism emerged–and sometimes, as a result, the phrase carries little of the phenomenological baggage that came with its foundations (as, for example, in G. Suttles , The Social Construction of Community, 1972
In psychology, a linked term–constructivism–is often associated with the work of Jean Piaget, and refers to the process by which the cognitive structures that shape our knowledge of the world evolve through the interaction of environment and subject. In social psychology the term is often used (for example in the work of Rom Harré) to capture a similar set of ideas to those outlined above.
Social constructionism is often contrasted with so-called essentialism because it moves away from the ideas of the naturally given or taken for granted and questions the social and historical roots of phenomena. See also EMOTION, SOCIOLOGY OF.
"social constructionism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 12, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-constructionism
"social constructionism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved October 12, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-constructionism