But it’s real and quantifiable, how can it be a social construct?

Social constructionism is a topic that continues to cause confusion, anger and hilarity, especially among natural scientists. Given how ridiculous the most common misconceptions (or deliberate strawmen) make this approach sound, I can’t blame them.

But they are, as said, misconceptions. In this post, I’ll give a brief explanation of what social constructionism is and what it’s not. (This is a slightly modified version of my comment to one of my favourite podcasts, The Reality Check. Highly recommended!)

Firstly, social constructionism is nothing new and nothing marginal. It’s connected to the 1970s linguistic turn of social and humanist sciences (cf. logical empiricism) and postmodernism, which pretty much form the hegemonic paradigm at the moment. All scholars in these fields wouldn’t necessarily call themselves social constructionists, but I’d nevertheless say you would have a hard time finding a social scientist or humanist who swears by essentialist and transhistorical aspects of humanity. That is, social and cultural features that are so inherent to humans that they are found everywhere in the exact same form, regardless of time and place. These kinds of ideas will be met with extreme scepticism among social constructionists.

Simply put, social constructionism analyses social and cultural realities, i.e., humans’ ideas, beliefs and conceptions about themselves and the world: how these ideas, beliefs and conceptions are manifested and how they’ve come to being. In principle, anything that humans have an understanding of can be studied under the wide umbrella of social constructionism. Social and moral norms, hierarchies and power relations, fashion trends, ideologies, policies, medical instruments, cultural rituals, scientific theories, buildings, institutions, agricultural machines, professions, national flags, identities, superheroes … What do these things (appear to) mean in context X for actor Y? How have these meanings developed? How are they expressed and reinforced? By whom? And so on.
In practice, the availability and type of material limits the seemingly endless topics. Different types of materials answer different questions, and non-existing material means there’s no expression of a conception to analyse. It is crucial to remain critical and reflexive over what actually can be interpreted and how.

Painting of a pipe. Under the painting, text in French that means "This is not a pipe."(Source: Matteson Art)

René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (1929) states: “This is not a pipe.” It points to the fact that it indeed is not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. It is a representation of an actual pipe in real life, or a representation of someone’s idea of a pipe.

While Magritte was a Modernist artist and not a postmodernist social scientist, his work rather nicely captures the relationship between social constructionism and the real world. When a social constructionist says something is socially constructed, they do not imply that it’s only socially constructed and doesn’t exist in real life. I emphasise: Social constructionism does not claim that physical/material reality doesn’t exist or is fake. However, social constructionists do not study material things themselves, but ideas of material things and meanings attributed to material things. Both aspects are ‘real’ in their own sense. In a human being’s reality, material things and their conceptions are inherently linked: it is impossible to be aware of the existence of something material and not have a conception of it. We have cultural conceptions even of the most mundane and trivial things; a pile of sand means something different for a person living in Libya than someone living in Svalbard. (Whether it’s interesting or meaningful to study a given conception is another matter.)

Social constructionism is particularly useful in identifying and analysing essentialised and naturalised phenomena – norms, ideas, practices and habits that are so engrained in a culture that they feel natural and obvious to the members of that culture, like truths or the only option. Some things are so naturalised that people aren’t even aware of them, but consciously recognised phenomena can also have the status of a cultural ‘truth’. For example, we know that once upon a time (not even that long ago), there was a world that wasn’t formed of nation-states. Nonetheless, we find it extremely difficult to imagine and believe in a world without nation-states. At most, it’s a mental exercise for us, not a credible and experiential premise.

Cultural ‘truths’ often involve a presentist and teleological understanding of history. The past is seen and even deliberately portrayed as a linear development to a specific phenomenon in the present. This approach is very human; we take our own present-day cultural reality for granted and instinctively interpret and explain things from its perspective. However, from a historiographical perspective, these narratives are very problematic. Deterministic interpretations are a form of winners’ history peppered with hindsight: they hide away actors and contingency, and disregard the notion that the present development wasn’t the only possibility. This doesn’t imply a revisionist or counterfactual interpretation of history – it just means acknowledging that the development that took place wasn’t fatalistically ‘meant to be’, but happened as the result of a number of factors and coincidence.

For further reading, I warmly recommend Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999). It’s a good introduction to the topic, arising from the ‘science/culture wars’ of the 1990s (which regrettably seem to be ongoing).