"Nothing is real."What if I told you that the reality you believed in is actually not so real? No, I am not Morpheus from Matrix instructing a naive Neo in the Construct. Instead, I am talking about a sociological theory of knowledge known as social constructionism. Although this theory does not state that the world we live in is a dream-like Matrix, it is inherently built on the same premise. We may believe that we view many aspects of everyday life as an objective reality. The actual reality, however, is the consequence of institutional practices and collective social agreement. In short, reality is socially constructed and is understood by conventions.
― John Lennon, Beatles Lyrics
― John Lennon, Beatles Lyrics
We may not know it but social constructions are part of our everyday lives. The meanings, notions, or connotations that we assign to objects or events are often socially constructed entities and exist because of certain sets of conventional rules. When we watch a game of football, how do we know the rules and organization of the game? The social conventions and our agreement with it have provided the game with the meaning. Suppose, an alien were to watch the same game without knowing the social conventions. Would the alien understand this as a form of sport or just assume that these were some crazy men running around?
Even seemingly natural phenomena, like sex or race, which we take for granted are actually the result of our culture or decisions. The social phenomena of race and gender are created, institutionalized, and made into traditions. It is people's conception of reality which becomes a social construct later on. This concept is closely related to "social constructivism" which focuses on individual's learning in a group.
Common social constructs or artifacts include money, culture, language, and nations. Money or rather currency is a good example. While a five-dollar bill may buy you a cheap meal in one country, when you go to some other country which does not share the "mutual understanding" that the bill equates to a cheap meal, they would refuse to trade. The key point here is the mutual understanding between the participants of the trade. Similarly, social construction is a mutually accepted idea that is created due to our social interactions.
Although there are many different theories and beliefs associated with social constructionism, it is generally categorized as weak social constructionism and strong social constructionism.
Weak Social Constructionism: These are objects or ideas which are assigned certain function or values based on the collective agreement. They are all a part of the social reality. As Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist says, "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money, tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the United States."
Strong Social Constructionism: According to strong social constructionism, everything that is real is actually a social construct. That does not mean that the things are unreal or imaginary. It is just how we make sense of that reality by means of social practices or language that makes it a strong social construct. So, when we say that it is a river and not just lots of water, it is human consensus that differentiates a river from a sea.
Social Constructionism and Gender
There are many existent social constructs. Some of these change with time or are disused, while others remain intact for long periods of time. Gender is one such pervasive social construct. From the time the baby is born and the doctor checks the baby's genitals to confirm if the baby is a boy or girl to teaching the child of the respective gender what they are supposed to wear, how they are supposed to behave, what activities they should engage in, and what work they should pursue, everything is decided by socially appropriate beliefs.
These beliefs mark categorical distinctions based on the gender. So, when a mother chooses baby blue for her baby boy or pink for a girl, it is because it is what everyone does, or rather, it is a societal norm. Each gender should dress in the socially accepted way. These differences in gender extend to adulthood as well. While men are stereotyped as "strong, macho, and powerful", women are assumed to be "caring, nurturing, and loving". This is how the society expects women and men to behave. So, when a woman does not want to nurture and raise a family, and instead, opts for a powerful role in society, she is considered "less feminine" or her efforts are completely downplayed so that she does not influence other "nurturing" women in the society.
Social Constructionism and Race
Race is an important social construct. Although it may seem real and omnipresent to everyone, there is no way to biologically categorize different sections of people. In all senses, race is politically and socially constructed. The social construction of race is also known as social formation.
Omi and Winant, the authors of the book Racial Formation in the United States, define the term as "race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies." Based on their appearance, people are classified and identified. There are often stereotypes and standards that follow this association; for example, the belief that some groups are superior than others.
The concept of social constructionism helps us understand how habitual practices and acknowledged truths are constructed. This powerful concept has prompted a range of research across social sciences and humanities. Of course, it has had its share of criticisms, as critics argue that the concept fails to highlight the importance of biological influences on behavior or culture. Despite this, the concept of social constructionism remains important as it exposes the idea of standards and stereotypes that we follow, just because we are told to or are supposed to do so.