It’s not ‘just’ a social construct: pessimistic about change

‘Social construct’ is a favourite bogeyman of the anti-PC brigade. These daring, freethinking spirits see dangerous relativism lurking behind this widely-accepted social science concept. The problem is that they generally do not understand what a social construct is. They are not alone: even many people dabbling on the more extreme side of ‘social justice’ seem to not fully grasp what it consists of. Social constructivism leads in fact to a rather pessimistic worldview, one with rather conservative expectations of change. Social constructs pinpoint really existing things, and structure and actors work together to keep them in place.

At its core, social constructivism is an epistemology: a theory of how we can know things in the world. Its point is that humans can only conceive of the world in language. The building blocks of our ‘world’ are the concepts found in the languages we use to listen, think, write, and speak. The content of these concepts is shared: they are social facts that exist intersubjectively. That means, ideas are shared by the people who speak the language. Growing up, people learn what social constructs such as ‘state’ or ‘male’ or ‘friend’ are by interacting with the world around them. They, in turn, shape the world by behaving according to the understanding thus acquired.

The whole point of a constructivist epistemology is in fact to argue that social constructs do really exist in the world. Social constructivism, in my opinion, differs from the more radical critical theory approaches by giving us the vocabulary to touch abstract concepts. It helps us understand how very real they are. It would be a fallacy to call concepts such as ‘state’, ‘male’, or ‘friend’ false simply because you have discovered how it works. There is no ‘real’ identity to uncover underneath. That you can describe how these concepts came about does not mean it they are any less important to people.

Change does happen. But it is difficult. Constructivism helps us understand why that is. As humans grow up, they internalise the shared stock of ideas, the structure of their society. This process begins from the start of consciousness before our brains have fully matured and is thus intimately intertwined with our biological development. Deviation is punished, either by incomprehension on the part of the person you deal with, or by explicit correction.

Over time, the meaning of shared concept does change. This may be because of meaning drift, since the transmission of ideas is never perfect. It may be because of activism, by people who live in multiple worlds and thus have easier access to multiple definitions. Still, a powerful self-correcting mechanism prevents rapid shifts. The structure will ‘correct’ deviants: if I ignore what ‘border’ means, there are several people—if necessary, people with the means to use violence—that will correct my understanding. Simultaneously, if the structure shifts, the large mass of people that has internalised the ‘old’ ideas will correct it: you can legislate a border into existence, but people who have lived in the affected area for centuries might still go on living their lives as always. To them, ‘border’ will not have the emotional resonance someone based in the capital might expect.

Sudden shifts require power: when you move to a new community, the old structure will no longer be able to correct you as much. Your institutions might be destroyed by an invading foreign power. State power will teach people to know better next time when they ignore a new law. But generally, power and those subjected to its force have internalised the same structure and are subject to the same corrective force. This ensures the essential stability of social constructs. Some might believe changing institutions will change behaviour. But that ignores the extent to which people themselves are part of reproducing the institutions as they were.

Changing views on things such as masculinity is not impossible, but social constructs are sticky. Activism is hard work and it takes time to shift views.

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