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My (socially-constructed) tale of woe.

“My cell phone doesn’t record HD video!” “My parents only pay half my car payment!” “It’s really hard to to find designer clothes that fit me!” In this post, Sarah Michele Ford uses jokes about “first world problems” to examine the concept of the social construction of reality.

Sometimes life is hard. In the past month, I laundered my cell phone and then promptly left its replacement in the seat-back pocket on an airplane. The replacement’s replacement was defective so now I’m on my fourth phone in a month. There’s a somewhat snarky term for my complaints about this particular chain of events, and even a blog or two devoted to such things. We call these first world problems. Yes, there’s quite a bit of judgement in that term, with the implication that if this is all we have to complain about, our lives can’t be all that bad. And yet… for me, much like the folks who are mocked on White Whine and First World Problems, this was a real problem (not least because my cell is my only telephone).

By examining these varying definitions of “problems” we can begin to see evidence of what Berger and Luckmann called the “social construction of reality”. Put quite simply, social constructionist theory tells us that something is significant because society believes it to be significant. Social constructionist theory grew out of the sociology of knowledge and has come to be applied to a wide variety of social phenomena.

One of the most common places we see the idea of social construction is when we study race. Why is a person’s outward appearance (their phenotype) treated as an indicator of their social status? Because we as a society have “agreed” that the color of a person’s skin is meaningful. And the consequences of that agreement have, of course, had consequences ranging from slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the death of Trayvon Martin in February of 2012.

Another common application of social construction is in the study of social problems. How does a particular society come to define some things as problems but not others? Here we start to see the interaction between values & norms (which themselves are socially constructed) and the social construction of reality. When something violates a society’s values and norms, it comes to be defined as a “social problem” and steps are taken to bring society back in line. As I alluded to above, though, what is a “problem” varies depending on the social situation. Things that used to be social problems in the United States (interracial marriage, for example) no longer are, while new social problems – cyberbullying, for example – now occupy a greater portion of the common consciousness.

If social construction just means that society has decided that a particular thing is meaningful, it should be easy to change, right? I think you know by now that the answer to that is a resounding, “Wrong!” Social change at any level is not easy, and changing social constructions means changing a culture’s deep-seated values. It can happen, but it’s not going to happen quickly or easily, because it means fighting history going back generations.

So yes, in 21st-century American society, the (repeated) loss of a mobile telephone is a real problem. In many other parts of the world, though, the loss of a mobile phone would not be socially constructed as a problem at all – not when there are much more vital problems to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis, like getting enough food to eat and not worrying about your safety on the streets.

References

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

Dig Deeper

  1. What other things that are usually taken for granted can be explained by the theory of social construction?
  2. How do values and norms play into the social construction of reality?
  3. What do you think it would take to change the social construction of race or social problems?