What is Social Construction?

Social Constructionist Theory
Social constructionist theory is built upon the observation that many of aspects of our everyday experience are the consequence of implicit social agreement, institutional practices or collective social action rather than objective reality, and only exist within the context of such agreements, practices or collective actions. Thus, many of the things we take for granted are not actually objective facts about the world, independent of human subjectivity, but are instead the products of human inter-subjectivity.

Social Constructs
A social construct is anything that exists by virtue of social interactions, as opposed to objective reality. For example, such things as nations, presidents, money and language do not exist outside of the context of human social behavior. Nevertheless, they exist as integral parts of our social functioning. Some philosophers have described social constructs as epistemologically objective and ontologically subjective because they are meaningful objects of knowledge only within the framework of inter-subjective human understanding.

Social Reality
Social reality is the "universe" of socially constructed knowledge created by virtue of our social interactions. Social reality is grounded in our behavior, our languages, our culture and our institutional practices and colors almost all of our perception. Although it is largely the consequence of our shared inter-subjective practices, we nevertheless occupy it largely without ever becoming explicitly aware of its contingent and constructed nature.

Artifacts are objects that are producible and comprehensible only upon the background of social reality. For instance, a novel is only a novel by virtue of our knowledge about social reality; otherwise, it is just paper bounded together and scribbled on with ink. Without understanding that this is a socially constructed artifact, we have no comprehension of how to go about treating it.

Weak Social Construction
Weak social construction theory holds that social constructs are dependent upon a background of brute facts and that social construction is the collective agreement to assign functions to objects. Consider, for example, money. We agree to understand money as a medium of exchange. We assign this function to little green paper bills and trade these bills for goods and services. This paper has value only insofar as we continue to agree it does, but it nevertheless is dependent on us having an object to use as a medium.

Strong Social Construction
Some critics claim that advocates of strong social construction think all of reality is a social construct, that there is no actual reality, no brute facts upon which to build social constructions. The point of strong social construction, however, is not to make the claim that there is no reality, but rather to point out that our languages and social practices largely determine how we make sense of that reality. For instance, trees are only differentiated from other plants by virtue of the fact that we have all learned to see them as "trees." Likewise, our beliefs about things such as history or nationality are the product of narratives that we have all learned. History still actually happened, but our beliefs about history are dependent upon the narratives we use to understand them.

Social ConstructionLanguage is a Social Construction

Degrees Of Social Construction

Though social constructionism contains a diverse array of theories and beliefs, it can generally be divided into two camps: Weak social constructionism and strong social constructionism. The two differ mainly in degree, where weak social constructionists tend to see some underlying objective factual elements to reality, and strong social constructionists see everything as, in some way, a social construction. This is not to say that strong social constructionists see the world as ontologically unreal. Rather, they propose that the notions of "real" and "unreal" are themselves social constructs, so that the question of whether anything is "real" is just a matter of social convention.

Weak Social Constructionism

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes that "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."

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish has suggested that baseball's "balls and strikes" are social constructions.

Both Fish and Pinker agree that the sorts of objects indicated here can be described as part of what John Searle calls "social reality". In particular, they are, in Searle's terms, ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective. "Social facts" are temporally, ontologically, and logically dependent on "brute facts." For example, "money" in the form of its raw materials rag, pulp, ink as constituted socially for barter for example by a banking system is a social fact of "money" by virtue of (i) collectively willing and intending (ii) to impose some particular function purpose for which, (iii) by constitutive rules atop the "brute facts." Social facts have the remarkable feature of having no analogue among physical brute facts. The existence of language is itself constitutive of the social fact, which natural or brute facts do not require. Natural or "brute" facts exist independently of language; thus a "mountain" is a mountain in every language and in no language; it simply is what it is.

Finally, against the strong theory and for the weak theory, Searle insists, "it could not be the case, as some have maintained, that all facts are institutional (i.e., social facts), that there are no brute facts, because the structure of institutional facts reveals that they are logically dependent on brute facts. To suppose that all facts are institutional (i.e., social) would produce an infinite regress or circularity in the account of institutional facts. In order that some facts be institutional, there must be other facts that are brute i.e., physical, biological, natural. This is the consequence of the logical structure of institutional facts."

Ian Hacking, Canadian philosopher of science, insists, "the notion that everything is socially constructed has been going the rounds. John Searle argues vehemently and in my opinion cogently against universal constructionism." "Universal social constructionism is descended from the doctrine that I once named linguistic idealism and attributed, only half in jest, to Richard Nixon." Linguistic idealism is the doctrine that only what is talked about exists, nothing has reality until it is spoken of, or written about. This extravagant notion is descended from Berkeley's idea-ism, which we call idealism: the doctrine that all that exists is mental."

Strong Social Constructionism

Strong social constructionists oppose the existence of "brute" facts. That a mountain is a mountain as opposed to just another undifferentiated clump of earth is socially engendered, and not a brute fact. That the concept of mountain is universally admitted in all human languages reflects near-universal human consensus, but does not make it an objective reality. Similarly for all apparently real objects and events: trees, cars, snow, collisions, dogs, rivers, towers, disasters, etc.

Why Yes, I am a Strong Social Constructionist

Language does not exist in nature. Language is not a physical entity. It is an ideation, an invention of the mind, a social construct. Language is unnatural. Language is artificial. Language does not exist in the physical realm. It is consensual, interpretative, epideictic.

All social and cultural categories are language-based—politics, religion, science, history, literature, education, etc—and language is artificial.

Within the social construction of language is the game. Outside the social construction is reality, the real world. When we use words to interpret what we are seeing or feeling or experiencing or believing in we are playing the game. When we embrace speechlessness—to silence our tongues, close of books, remove ourselves from lectures and speech-making and sermons—we return to reality.

If every word in the world were to suddenly disappear, every book, every document, every newspaper and magazine and billboard, our ability to even speak and to understand language completely removed, the world would still be here. We would still be here. Reality would still be here.

But what would no longer be here?

Only those things that exist only through language, because of language, inside of language. Religion. God. Heaven. Hell. The Soul. Life-After-Death. Sin. Truth. Deception. Countries. Politics. Ideologies. Economics. Sciences. Philosophies. Myths.

We are all living inside the Matrix, and the Matrix is composed of words.

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LAST UPDATED: September 2, 2010
September 2, 2010