This is part of a blog series I am writing called Everyday Anthropology. The goal of this series is to introduce concepts of anthropology that can be seen in everyday life, in a way that a wide audience of readers can understand and relate to. Let’s dive right in! Hope you enjoy.
What is a Social Construct?
As with many of the other concepts I write about on this blog, I will start with a dictionary definition. According to Merriam Webster, a social construct is:
“An idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society.”
- Depend on an informal agreement maintained by everyone in a society
- Can change overtime (just like culture)
- Are very real and have an impact on our lives, despite not necessarily being based in scientific fact
- Are not inherently positive or negative (and whether they are good or bad is often up to individual interpretation)
Some of the most commonly discussed social constructs are race and gender. Both are important topics, and both have been written about extensively by anthropologists and other social scientists. I found some great posts about these topics on anthropology blogs here (race) and here (gender). Even the New York Times has written about race as a social construct. You can find many academic articles on these topics.
So, in the spirit of stretching my brain, I’m going to discuss a few slightly less talked about examples of social constructs here.
Countries and Borders
In short, borders and nation-states exist because groups of people and governments (also made up of people) agree on them and enforce them. Though our globalized world has connected people digitally in incredible ways, people were once more connected in a literal, tangible way due to the lack of controlled borders (as these borders exist now).
In addition, as many of us may learn in school, governments are based in a society’s mutual agreement to trade taxes and resources in exchange for things like military protection and public infrastructure.
You can read more of my anthropological thoughts on borders here.
Schools and Education
Kids are not born knowing that they must start school by age 5. They are not born knowing how to sit at a desk, raise their hands to ask questions, or line up at the sound of a school bell.
Our educational system, including what material is taught and how it is taught, is a social construction. As such, school systems and government legislation regarding education varies around the world.
This goes for many kinds of relationship—parent-child, sibling, romantic, marital, friendships etc.
The expectations of how relationships should function is a social construct. For example, in most societies, incest is taboo and discouraged.
This is a subject in which the distinction between social constructs gets bit more fuzzy, and I’d love to hear some debate on this. But my point is that although relationship concepts may have some roots in biology, the way they are taught and enforced is social. Nature itself does not “care” how relationships function, but the people who observe these relationships in everyday life usually do.
Some final thoughts…
I want to emphasize again that just because something is a social construct does not mean it is not “real” or significant. Some take the idea of social constructs as a justification for saying things like “I don’t see color.” And to that I say…
Unless you were raised in extreme isolation (and sometimes even then), you have social ideas of race and ethnicity embedded in your psyche. This does not mean that your ideas of race are exactly the same as the ideas of everyone around you. It also does not necessarily mean you are racist. In addition, it does not mean that your perceptions can never change.
One way to contribute to changing the negative social constructs that exist in your society is simply by recognizing that certain concepts are not based in fact, but depend on socially build rules.