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A social construction, or social construct or a social concept is an invention or artifact of a particular culture or society which exists solely because people agree to behave as if it exists, or agree to follow certain conventional rules. Obvious social constructs include such things as games, language, money, school grades, titles, governments, universities, corporations and other institutions. Social constructionism is a school of thought that attempts, to varying degrees, to analyze seemingly natural and given phenomena in terms of social constructs.
Less obvious, and more arguable, social constructs include class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, morality, memory and the whole reality. Connotations of such analysis may seem to include made-up, accidental, arbitrary, and unreal, though this is rarely what social constructionists who use the term have in mind, for, according to most social constructionists, social constructions are very much real - they are a part of, or sometimes the entirety of, lived reality. Indeed, they are ontologically on par with "real" reality.
There is little argument as to whether or not games are social constructs. They exist entirely because of a set of rules or social conventions which the players, and the spectators, agree to work within. To take one example, each piece in chess may move only in certain patterns - the bishop may move only diagonally, the knight only in an 'L' shape, etc. There is, of course, no physical property the pieces possess that prevents them from moving otherwise, nor is it impossible for any other reason to move, say, a pawn two spaces backward instead of the usual one space forward. It is only a set of social conventions—the rules of chess—and our agreement to abide by those rules which prevents us from doing so.
In a similar vein, Stanley Fish (Fish 1996) has suggested that the baseball's "balls and strikes" are social constructions (Hacking 1999, pp. 29-31).
Gender, sex, and feminism
Especially with the advent of second-wave feminism, it has become fairly common to separate biological sex from gender, claiming along the way that there is no inherent connection between the two. Indeed, in more recent years, social constructionists have asserted that gender is entirely a social construct. The rules by which, for example, biological women navigate the world are products of a given society and, indeed, they vary between societies. There is no fact in nature that compels women to wear dresses, have long hair, be nurturing toward children, cook, clean, etc. These are roles that women have been socialised into fulfilling, and they could be, and are often, otherwise. Moreover, like the chess example above, these are conventions - the rules exist because we create them and they can be changed.
Biological sex, too, has been subjected to the critical eye of social constructionists, especially when viewed in terms of an exclusive either/or, male/female dichotomy. Queer theorists note that transsexual and intersexed people seem to defy this mode of categorization, and note attempts by medical doctors throughout the 20th century to force such people into the male/female construct. Intersexed babies, especially, have been forcibly subjected to a series of sex assignment surgeries in order to make them fit into our historically specific worldview, often following the crass guideline "its easier to make a hole than a pole". The point, social constructionists argue, is that the very necessity of forcing these people into our scheme of sex categorization shows that this scheme cannot be a matter of biological fact, but must instead be a social construction.
The first book with "social construction" in its title was Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, first published in 1966. Since then, the term found its way into the mainstream of the social sciences. For a description of key concepts, see social constructionism and deconstruction.
Philosopher and historian of science Ian Hacking (1999, p. 18) claims that the term is also used where its usage isn't meaningful. As an example, he relates that Rom Harré's publisher insisted that Harré change the title of one of his works from The Social Production of Emotions to The Social Construction of the Emotions since more copies would sell under the new title. "Social construction" may also sometimes be used primarily to make friends or enemies; as Hacking (1999, p. vii) says, "The phrase has become code. If you use it favorably, you deem yourself rather radical. If you trash the phrase, you declare that you are rational, reasonable, and respectable".
Linguist Steven Pinker (2002, p. 202) writes that "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist." Both Hacking and Pinker agree that the sorts of objects indicated here can be described as part of what John Searle calls "social reality". In particular, they are, in Searle's terms, ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective. Informally, they require human practices to sustain their existence, but they have an effect that is (basically) universally agreed upon. The disagreement lies in whether this category should be called "socially constructed". Hacking (1997) argues that it should not.
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann: The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
- John Searle (1995) The Construction of Social Reality
- Ian Hacking (1999). The Social Construction of What?. Harvard University Press: 2001.
- Ian Hacking (1997). John Searle's building blocks. History of the Human Sciences.
- Steven Pinker (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human nature. Viking Penguin.
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