What is a Social Construct?

What is a social construct, and what does it mean for us? Learn about how many concepts like time and gender just might be socially constructed.

The term "social construct" is primarily connected to social constructionism, also known as the social construct theory. The theory explains that social constructs are created so that people can categorize and structure the world around them in an understandable and referable way.

Humans live in societies that are founded on our ability to construct the observable and unobservable world around us socially. How we define our reality shapes the way that society operates. Everyday social interactions with other members of our community also play a massive role in how we perceive both ourselves and others, but how they also influence our actions. Social constructs allow us to communicate with other people as we share a common understanding of those constructs based on a shared pool of societal knowledge.

Social Constructionism and its Beginnings

Social constructionism is founded on the assumption that the knowledge about the world in which we live in is created within society. Therefore, our shared reality will be shaped by our common notions about that reality. This implies that because most of what surrounds our existence is socially constructed, so when societies change, so do many things we perceive as "real" or "objective".

Social construct theory got its first appearance in the book titled The Social Construction of Reality, written by sociologists Berger and Luckman in 1966. Their joint work was inspired by many famous theoreticians, such as Marx and Durkheim. However, the primary influence seems to be George Herbert Mead and its symbolic interactionism. Mead’s theory proposes that the construction of our identity depends heavily (if not primarily) on the everyday social interactions with other members of our society.

Although the social constructs that our reality is based on feel natural and ‘’real’’, the social constructionism theory says that we create them based on what we share as a society at a given time. We create the meaning of our shared reality and use constructs to understand each other.

Gender and Time as Social Constructs

One of the present-day examples of social constructs is gender. When viewing gender under the social constructionist light, the reasons of why we could consider gender to be simply a social construct becomes apparent.

The assertion is based on several things. One of them is the distinction between biology and gender. The gender typically assigned at birth has no inherent link with biology. The socially-produced "rules" that say what a woman is, for example, or how a woman should behave are arbitrary and completely relative to the society that provides them. Different cultures will have different gender roles. These roles are not based in "nature" as there are no natural laws that dictate cooking, cleaning, length of hair or other any other "female" behaviors. Same goes with male roles that typically define a man within the constrictions of "tough", "doesn’t cry", "provider", "strong", etc. The roles are a societal product and are a result of our perception of reality, which we have made into something that makes sense to other members of our society and us at a given time. They are persistent, and we are socialized into accepting them as a given, but as the perceptions of the world change, so do our internalized social constructs.

Another social construct worth mentioning is time. Although we typically perceive time as something given (as we do with most constructs) and rarely give it a second thought, the fact is that it’s a classic example of a social construct. Society as a whole gives meaning to the passage of time and categorizes it in logical units and measurements. That isn’t to say that time isn’t real or that its effects do not exist. It merely provides an insight into the fact that different societies have different perceptions of time, hence the societal differences on what it means to be on time, early/late, or how long a workday should be.

Is Everything a Social Construct?

We perceive the world through acquired knowledge that we have of it, and that knowledge can only be communicated to other people if we construct it in a way that is understandable and agreed upon. The conventions on how exactly to do it did not appear magically but were created and learned by people. So, if we are asking this question from a perspective of a social constructionism theory, then yes, everything can be seen as a social construct. The physical world does exist – but our perception of it is socially constructed.


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