“Professor Palmer, do sociologists think everything is a social construction?” a student asked me. I laughed; it was one of the “don’t be silly” varieties. In truth, I was stalling. Standing in front of 300 students, I needed a moment to rack my brain. “No… well?… Um.” I cocked my head to the side and squinted in anticipation of how my answer was going to land, “Yes.” My answer was a declarative statement, but it sounded like a question. “I’m Ron Burgundy?”
In successive weeks, my intro students and I discussed how race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality were all social constructions (Omi and Winant 1994; Ridgeway 2011). Before that we chewed on the idea that every symbol is inherently empty until we socially construct a meaning to fill it with (Zerubavel 1991). Before that we learned about symbolic interactionists who argue that reality is a social construction (Beger and Luckmann 1967).
In truth, every aspect of human life is at least partially a social construction. That’s a bold claim, and I’m prepared to back it up, but before we do that, we need to talk about two opposing ideas essentialism and constructionism.
Essentialism: It Is What It Is And That’s It
Essentialism is the idea that things have qualities, attributes, or meanings that cannot be separated from them. It’s the belief that things have an inherent essence or true nature to them. Or to borrow the words of one of my brilliant students, essentialism is arguing that, “it is what it is and that’s it.”
Essentialism often pops up throughout our day-to-day lives. For instance, “boys will be boys,” or the idea that women are inherently better parents because they have, “maternal instincts,” are both based on the logic of essentialism. The same logic is behind the belief that Muslims are inherently violent or prone to terrorism. Chances are, if someone is making a broad over-generalization or arguing that there are natural biological differences between social groups, they are being essentialist.
Constructionism: It Is What We Say It Is.
Social constructionism is the polar opposite of essentialism. Social Constructionism argues that nothing has an inherent, immutable quality to it, but rather the qualities of things are created through social interaction. Social Constructions are the meanings we attach to symbols, objects, and other things which are created through an informal process of social negotiation. Or simply put, “it is what we say it is.”
Sociologists see race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, and pretty much everything else as a social construction. This is not to say that these things aren’t real. A $1 bill and a $100 bill are basically the exact same thing in terms of their physical characteristics. The fact that one of them is worth 100 times more than the other does not come from their material differences, but rather the differences in how they were socially constructed. The Thomas Theorem states that situations defined as real are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928). Thus, even if both the $1 bill and the $100 bill are nearly identical physically, if people believe that the Benjamin is worth 100 Washingtons then the value of a Benjamin is real in its consequences.
Everything is a Social Construction
The big idea here is that the meanings we attach to symbols, objects, and every other thing in society are separate from the symbols, objects and things themselves. The meanings are not inside the things, but rather they are attached to them socially.
With this in mind, think about everything around you now. The names you call these things, the ways you think to use these things and the messages you think these symbols communicate to others are all social constructions. The very words you would use to describe these things come from language, which is obviously a social construction.
Why This Matters
Essentialism is an oppressive and dangerous logic. If boys will be boys, then there is no reason even to try changing how our society conceptualizes masculinity as violent and dominating. If all Muslims are violent terrorists, then discriminating against them is both logical and just. If an entire group of people all have an inherent nature to them, then there is no reason to consider the individuality of each member of that group. When we pretend like social constructions are natural or inherent to the people, objects, and things around us, we flatten the complexity of the real world, impede critically thinking, and legitimate discrimination and oppression.
- If a person believed the essentialist idea that women are naturally better parents because they have maternal instincts, how might that affect their behavior?
- If the meaning of everything is socially constructed, then doesn’t that mean it fake? How can social constructions be real? In your answer, be sure to use the Thomas Theorem.
- In the United States, the color yellow is often associated with cowardice. For instance, in cowboy movies being “yella” meant you were a coward. Do a Goolge search for what the color yellow means in China. Report back what you find and discuss how the differences in the meanings we attach to the color yellow is an example of social constructionism.
- Critically think about the author’s argument that everything is (at least partially) socially constructed? Is his claim fair and accurate? Can you think of examples of things that are not socially constructed?
- Berger, Peter L. and Thomas A. Luckmann. 1967. Social Construction of Reality: Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. 2nd Revised edition edition. London: Allen Lane
- Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2 edition. New York: Routledge.
- Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2011. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Oxford University Press.
- Thomas, William Isaac and Dorothy Swaine Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. A. A. Knopf.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1991. The Fine Line : Making Distinctions in Everyday Life. 1st edition. New York: The Free Press.