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Actually: what is "social construction"

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Some weeks back now a friend pointed out something: "You can't have "born in the wrong gender" and "gender is a social construct" both at the same time they are contradictory. Now ok, Since gender is my specific area of interest and research it's fairly simple to parse that out, but before we get into that, what struck me as interesting about this comment is what it imply's about the speakers ideas around the concept of "Social construction" So.. that's the topic of today's little stream of consciousness.

Social construction: what's dat den?

Put simply, its a concept that acknowledges the causality of society i.e. the social beliefs, goals, motivations etc, that "society" has, and crucially it also acknowledges that those will impact on its own creation. Berger and Luckmann Stated that: "Society is a human product, society is an objective reality: man is a social product" (the social construction of reality 1966)

However the statement above and many similar ones that people make perhaps focusing less heavily on gender does allude to another area of thinking. Essentialism: The idea that people, objects, concepts and ideas simply "are" and that they either exist or do not. That they do what they do because of the natural physiological nature of them, or other naturally occurring laws that govern them, laws than we didn't construct and cannot change, merely observe, and must always be bound by. So:

Essentialism: We in exist in a reality that created us, are dependent on it and subject to its causality. We cannot change or alter that causality.

Constructivism We exist in a reality that was created, we were part of that process and as our abilities grew we affected change on the world around us. Interestingly in psychology "Constructivism" is often linked to the work of J Piaget, and refers to the process by which the cognitive structures that shape our world and our knowledge of it evolve through the interaction of ourselves with the environment (including other people) So... one could say that we have constructivism on one end, essentialism on the other and the considerations of our psychological interaction with the world and its consequences and outcomes (both for individual and environment) in the middle. Bhaskar and Berns critical reality concepts would sit somewhere central to this as well. Since psychology and critical reality both deal with "perception" and thus "knowledge of". Perhaps oddly, if one takes an essentialist/physicalist view then both become products of our evolutionary acquisition of the ability to think. (ecology/anthropology and the ecological self) So... going back to our original question: "You can't have "born in the wrong gender" and "gender is a social construct, because they contradict each other" On first reading that does appear to perhaps be possibly true. This statement "feels" like it makes sense. Why is that? Well its because the first statement is an ontological essentialist one and the latter is a constructivist one. Therefore seemingly they are at opposite ends of the argument. However lets break this down philosophically and as ever there are two things to ask here:

Question One: Is this true?

Question Two: and how would we know this?

(Thanks Dr Corivnio...!! - I saw this on one of his lectures, which you can find here and I've used it ever since)

Well can you actually be "born in/with the wrong gender?" Plainly some people think that you can, and also some others that you can't. So we need to look at how that might come about. T'is a simple process really. Human baby is born .. Dr looks at baby and says "its a boy" To do this the Dr has made a couple of observations and categorical assumptions. 1) It's a baby. (doh!)

2) genitals are present and external to body and resemble typically male (penis)

3) Therefore Penis, therefore Male therefore Boy. So although the statement "its a boy" feels like an ontological one, i.e about what something "is", it is also a statement based on both observation and categorisation of what those observations mean. The latter of which uses an assumptive, knowledge based thought process. i.e. epistemological. (can you see Bhaskar and Bern critical realities creeping in here yet? ) So in actual fact what the Dr is saying is "I believe it's a boy" and that is an epistemological statement. The Dr has made an unconscious link from anatomic sex (observable) to Gender (assumptive categorisation) and it is this process that is key here.

It leads us to two further questions, that might suggest reasons why the Dr in question would make these assumptions, and why they may seem so obvious. 1) Does everyone who is born with a penis grow up to "be" a boy/man? 2) SHOULD everyone who is born with a penis grow up to be a boy/man? The answer to the first one is observable and demonstrably no... however that IS dependent on your view of the words, "boy" & "man". Are they Ontological statements of being, or categorical descriptors of people? I would of course suggest the latter.

The second question is an ethical one... let's leave that aside now because its outside of the scope of this blog, and a huge topic in its own right, but I'll return to it later and link that discussion in the references of this one. Most people with a penis grow up to be a boy/man. Similarly most people with vaginas grow up to be girls/women. So the Dr's thinking seems rational, and grounded in a lot of experience and knowledge. but it is still a process. It has history, and is a result that stems from other ideas.

What the above also demonstrates is the idea that one is not born a boy, or indeed a girl. One is born a baby with a given set of physical anatomical features, some of which we call genitalia and once they are observed by a Dr, a bunch of assumptions are made in the mind of said Dr which are then placed upon baby.

(this also aligns with Simone de Beauvoir's famous line "one is not born a woman, rather one becomes one" from feminist theory)

In actual fact the happy occurrence of a birth can have three instantly observable outcomes, Male, female or an anatomy that has hitherto been medicalised as intersex. But nevertheless the point still stands, the assumption is made for the baby, not by the baby. (for very obvious reasons) Historically speaking the medical establishment has ,when presented with babies that are hard to categorise, decided that there is male, female and "wrong" then set about attempting to fix said babies. Happily this is being dealt with but is again a huge topic for another time. So the problem with part one of our original statement is that in fact one is not "born a gender at all" rather one is simply assumed to "be" one via the occurrence of being born with an observable anatomical sex. Linguisitics play a part here too since the terms "Gender and Sex" have been used interchangeably in common parlance for many many years, so it becomes unclear which the originator of the comment or other users of similar arguments might be referring to.

So what's this got to do with social constructivism? Well the thought process that the Dr applied to arrive at the conclusion "its a boy" is a product of the application of a social construction. The idea that penis = male = boy is one that has become so common place that it has taken on the status of an observable truth, a fact and therefore knowledge. The way the Dr thinks is important here. Educational knowledge is also socially constructed, mostly because it is dependent upon what we think we already know. (Mary Douglas and Basil Bernstein circa 1960) (Remember the "true, justified, belief" framework of knowledge and the gettier problems from earlier blogs and the podcast ?)

So that in a nutshell is social construction. The resistance to change of an idea is social construction. The attempt to change that idea is also social construction. Reliance on the validity of ideas we've had before is social construction. The collective creation of Ideas is .. yep you guessed it.. social construction. The baby in this case simply exists. It may have a penis. It may also be XXY genetically.. but we don't know this. It may also have other non observable characteristics which become evident later in life but for now the Dr has assigned the baby the "categorical descriptor" of being known as a "boy" Whether the individual feels the need to step outside of this descriptor later in life then becomes a question of who is more right, and why they may be so. Is it the Dr at birth or the patient? and what does society permit the individual to do?

(And like I said ... "SHOULD everyone with a penis grow up to be a boy/man?" is an ethical question regarding what "society" will permit ..... cos ethics is "how" we think about what we "should" think about "what" we think..... know where that's going right?) Thus when we say "born in the wrong gender" or even" born in the wrong sex/body". What we are actually saying is that people were assumed at birth to have a set of attributes that, as they grew up they didn't actually have, or if they did have them, they didn't mean what we assumed they might. Neither variation of the "born in...." statement is actually correct, because they both appear to be essentialist, but aren't, being poorly worded short hand for concepts that are frequently misunderstood or misrepresented. That concept being a physiologically based "gender dysphoria"

This is why the newer terms for sex and the assumptions of gender at birth is "that which we are Assigned" by the Dr in their role as a representative of the established educational social constructivist view that penis "probably" means boy and eventually man. This allows us to wait and see what the baby says in a few years, and permits variation in what was at one time thought be an immovable absolute. It allows in the "idea" that the baby might not become "a boy"

A problem of two halves

So, onto the second half of our original statement "gender is a social construct" Well, What is Gender? I mean ontologically what is it? Sex? nah we've covered that surely..I mean yeah its an outcome from sex but it aint sex .. ? (if you aint got that by now me thinks you're on the wrong blog page) What do we use Gender for? Why do we have it? what do we understand from it?

I would suggest gender is communication. A language if you will. Used to tell others both what we feel and how we view ourselves. What ideas we might be concerned with or driven by, interested in, and want to associate with. And yes reading that you might pick up hints of sexuality in there , which makes sense because sexuality is similarly a huge piece of "identity work" (Brown 2014) that makes use of gender to project our view of ourselves into the world. But both gender and sexuality, like people, are hugely diverse. Talking with others and sharing ideas are the bit that makes people click. The part of us that lets others know how we view the world etc.

But, if gender is a communication tool and it's all about interacting with others and the world around us... Isn't that the definition of Psychological constructivism from earlier?

"...the process by which the cognitive structures that shape our world and our knowledge of it evolves through the interaction of ourselves with the environment (including other people)

This leads us back to the question that is the title of this blog. What is social construction? Like I said earlier, social construction is built from and more over is the outcome of "ideas". The way we think and construct our society. it embodies ethics, (what kind of society do we wish to build) it embodies education (how do we know things, what does that mean?) and it embodies religion. (where did we come from?) It also embodies how we communicate, with ourselves and others. How we procreate, consummate and ruminate on all things to do with our existence and simply living it. Therefore one could argue that pretty much everything that we humans have collectively dreamt up, argued over, disagreed with, changed, modified and moulded into something that has systematic thought and process behind is "socially constructed". "Social construction" is short hand for the micro - evolutionary development of the human species over several life times rather than evolutionary time. If Descartes could suggest "I think therefore I am" then surely collectively we can say similar ? "We create, therefore we are socially constructed"


I guess I better answer the initial question then. is the statement actually true?

"You can't have "born in the wrong gender" and "gender is a social construct" both at the same time, they are contradictory.

Yes. it is. But not perhaps in the way some original presenters of the argument thought it to be so. It is true because part one appears to be grounded in essentialist objectivity when it actually isn't and as a premise is also actually factual incorrect. Therefore the first statement has no bearing on the second half of the statement, which actually is true.

What this statement also isn't is any type of disproval of the social construction of gender. Nor is a socially constructed view of gender mutually exclusive to credible physiological underpinnings of gender dysphoria, a phenomena frequently described as the feeling of being "born in the wrong gender/body/sex". People with gender dysphoria were simply born into a body that doesn't fit neatly into socially constructed, commonly used and therefore "normalised" descriptions of gender, and the consequential expectations of them that would result. and guess what ... some of em actively change category and thus "become" trans women or trans men" A process no less valid or truthful than De Beauvior's "one becomes a women"

They aint in the wrong body. Never were. Their body and thus mind tells them they were placed by a Dr into the wrong category as a baby Although statements like this one are frequently used to by those who might seek to undermine the validity of people undergoing gender transition. It's a trope, a dog whistle, and a good one at that because the temptation is to argue that it isn't contradictory without first looking at the underpinnings of each. It's an attempt to suggest sex is the same as gender and that trans people really are the gender they were assigned at birth and just chose to live a different (less authentic) life. It then feeds into the idea that Cis people (non trans) are normal and trans people "chose" to be different and thus aint entitled to "special treatment". So, if you're around right wing spaces, liberals or Neo liberals etc you might hear this sort of thing quite a lot. It is tantamount to:

"People can identity what ever way they like but you can't change how they were born." How? Because it suggest that biological reality and social constructivism are opposites when in fact they are two separate, complex, but intrinsically linked causations of many many things. It attempts to force the listener to chose a "truth" between biology/sociology. Between nature and nurture, when in fact the statement itself is a false equivocation from a false dichotomy.

Amusingly it is used very often by those who would suggest social constructivism is false, and yet it is itself a statement born from a particular and no less socially constructed view. If one defends the "at birth" argument then one is vulnerable to counters of mental health and ontological description of male and female and liable to be asked for un provable proof of what a real man or woman is. Defend the social construct and again it lays open a target of "but men and women are biologically different are you suggesting the only difference is clothes and choice". Er no. we aint.

The political right's use of the term "trans trender" is evidence of their dislike for the concept of social construction, similarly when paired with phrases like "social contagion" both of which suggest trans is "false" or "wrong" and do so by painting social construction as "less valid than" so called biological arguments.

Quite why the political right has a love affair with essentialism soo much and seems to take pot shots at social construction whenever and wherever possible is anyones guess, but the approach does align with theocratic and capitalist exclusionary reasons for suggesting some people are more worthy than others. Whatever the reason, that is also another huge topic for another time.

In fairness linguistics as ever also play their part and historically the interchangeability of the words "gender" and "sex" hasn't helped us in our efforts to understand the outcomes of newer thinking around the physiological underpinnings of the trans gender phenomenon. It is helpful therefore to look at other social construction arguments where biology has been touted as the objective truth that underpins a socially constructed concept, where we have more closely defined language. One such example is when Sex/gender become replaced with ethnicity/culture. The colour of peoples skin is an undeniable observable fact. What that colour means to them and and the impact it has on their life is a product of the ideas we create (i.e. socially construct) about what the colour of a persons skin means. Historically some of those ideas were pretty exclusionary too.

Perhaps eventually language will evolve and we will construct new concepts that will become socially accepted, and if given enough time, even considered so obviously correct that people will wonder at the wisdom of those who came before and didn't see the logic of plainly obvious "facts" Socially constructed assumptions.. they are funny things eh? Don't believe me? How many of you lovely readers assumed the Dr I mentioned above was a guy? .... did I say that? Or did you assume because of most likely outcome. ?

reference links

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