The Best Parts of Life are Social Constructs

One of the more tiresome arguments endlessly rehashed on the Internet is over the status of race and sex/gender as social constructs. Clearly, both have some biologically determined and some culturally constructed qualities; I’m more on the biological side than most people, and find stories like this fairly frightening, but I can also point to some people who I think are silly in denying that historically contingent aspects of culture have power to shape identity. Everybody has a left (and a right) wing. 

Part of what makes this argument so tiresome, apart from the mendacious treatment of evidence one often encounters, is that just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean you can just command it to go away. As Gabriel Rossman points out, you can’t click your ruby slippers together and say “there’s no gender any more” and whoosh, there it goes.

But the other reason the argument is boring is because lots of things are much, much more clearly social constructs than race and gender are, and a lot of them are pretty good things. Property, law, marriage, art, music, architecture, cuisine: the good stuff in life, with few exceptions, is socially constructed. Some of them you might be able to make go away (to an extent, for a while), but why would you want to?

13 thoughts on “The Best Parts of Life are Social Constructs

  1. Gender is also, while a social construct, something that few if any societies seem to be able to do without. While there are as many ways of distinguishing between men and women as there are societies – and many more besides – every human society seems to have some system of gender difference, focusing upon drawing just such a distinction. Gender systems seem to be a universal human contingency, like language.

    Furthermore, despite differences between gender systems, if you were to switch around men and women in any human society, it would be unlikely to take more than a few seconds for a unwitting observer to realise that something odd was afoot.

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    1. Sure, I agree that human biological nature, itself varied across time and space, creates frames and structures around which culture then constructs itself, like the armature of a sculpture.

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  2. “Social construct” itself strikes me as a term ripe for replacement. I have no suggestion as to what that replacement should be.

    One problem with the term, as applied to questions of genetics vs environment, is that individuals acquire their genes as the result of sexual intercourse, which is the most constructive and most constructed form of socializing there is. The first time that occurred to me, it seemed too obvious and too superficial to mention, but the longer I think about it the harder a time I have not laughing out loud whenever I hear the term “social construct” used to signify something opposed to a genetic explanation of behavior.


  3. I had a good laugh the other day when I read Freddie deBoer’s article in which he begrudgingly conceded that human perceptions of physical attractiveness are not entirely socially constructed and might be grounded in our evolutionary past. And deBoer is far more scientifically literate than most leftists—he takes it for granted that this revelation will be poorly received by his readers.

    But if we’re sincere about wanting to erode these conditions, we need to be honest about the inadequacy of theory when it comes to something as primal as how we feel about our looks. I don’t know, maybe it will just take more time for culture to catch up. I hope so. But though there is no doubt that culture deeply influences perceptions of attractiveness, it seems clear to me that evolution is at play as well, as impolitic as that is to say. I hope I’m proven wrong. But maybe it’s just centuries of natural selection pressing down on us and forcing us to care about what would have had evolutionary advantages 300,000 years ago.

    It’s funny how a political tradition ostensibly grounded in a dispassionate, materialist understanding of the world is so transparently motivated by a poorly disguised idealism in which the possibilities for human emancipation are assumed to be boundless given a sufficient level of consciousness. They really have no choice but to resort to the social-construct meme to avoid the devastating implication that an analysis of material realities that give rise to sociological phenomenona suggests that there are limits to their transformative ambitions, exposing the seam in Marx’s incoherent attempt to graft the descriptive and prescriptive contents of his thought. The base–superstructure analogy (which could aptly be applied to sex and gender) that they themselves created becomes their own undoing when the material base is inclusive of biology.

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  4. Another issue I have with the language of social ‘constructs’ is that it is typically employed in a manner suggesting artificiality and intentional design, and in a manner that implies some form of powerfully (and typically suspect) unified agency. All of this offers a highly misleading framework within which to think. Speaking of social ‘customs’ or ‘conventions’ would generally be preferable, as it gives less of an open door to those who want to operate in terms of conspiracy theories.

    The gendered customs and conventions of different societies are just the various ways that societies have fallen into practising maleness and femaleness, the grooves and ruts that have been forged by the runnels of centuries of practice. These customs and conventions are formed as the reality of sexual difference carves evolving passages through the unique terrain of a particular social order. Every human society will be subject to such a process, and it isn’t an especially witting or intentional one. There is no Grand International Headquarters of the Patriarchy, for instance, just a consistent tendency for maleness to play itself out socially in particular ways under the conditions experienced by traditional societies.

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  5. Could you help me? I ran into this post from a NYT column by Ross Douthat. I know not Spottedtoad. I would be most grateful if you would send a link or reply or post an “About” page with details of the author. I’m not wont to read content unless I know who the author is. Much obliged. – Charles


  6. As you may be realizing, you’ve been linked to by Ross Douthat (who probably got here from Sailer, but will never admit it). I’m glad to see your blog will hopefully receive some of the recognition it deserves, but you may see an increase in traffic.


    1. Believe it or not, a link from Sailer almost matches a link from Douthat in terms of traffic, even for a quite popular/controversial Douthat article. I think it’s partly that Steve has a fairly huge reading base for a mostly independent blog, and largely that NYT readers don’t click on links.


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