What is social construction and why is it relevant to discuss asexuality ?

1) What is “social construction” ?

Two conditions are required to be able to define something as “socially constructed”. For a thing to be called “socially constructed”, it first requires that it appears as inevitable, as a mere consequence of the very nature of the world. This thing can’t be connected to a cultural background, to a social background or to a given time. In other words, this thing has to give the impression that it has always been there and that it is irremovable.

The second condition to be fulfilled is the negation of this very first condition. A thing is said to be “socially constructed” if it seems inevitable whereas it is actually produced by a specific social context. In this case, it is not inevitable as it is not fixed for ever. If the social context had happened to be different, this thing would have been different or would merely not have existed at all.

In order to illustrate what I’ve just mentioned, one can use the well-known quotation by Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. This sentence is built on the opposition of two types of explanations: on the one hand “women are born women”; on the other hand, “women become women”. To Simone de Beauvoir, asserting that one could be born a woman meant to say that everything that was required from a woman in mid-twentieth-century France was the consequence of the so-called truly experienced female nature. It meant, among other things, that being set under the domination of a father, a husband, or being excluded from public life were not to be experienced as injustices because they were the consequence of a “natural order”.  It was an obvious situation because it originated in the very essence of women.

On the contrary, if a woman was becoming a woman, it was all different. It meant that one was learning to be a woman. It also meant that one needed to internalize a whole set of values, representations and constraints, that one needed to learn how to produce correct behaviors, to interact and to think in the right manner. What was presented as the consequence of the very nature of things was in fact only the result of learning and training. Moreover, those ideas defining at that time the way a woman should think, get dressed, talk and act had not been set forever. They were not unavoidable. They were the result of a given social situation.

I am obviously not intending to capture the richness of the thought of Simone de Beauvoir only in a few sentences. However, through this example, we see right through the meaning of “social construction”. What we see more particularly is that presenting things in terms of “social construction” can be really liberating: if a thing is inevitable, there is no need to oppose it. On the contrary, if this thing is socially constructed, it can be fought against, it can be changed.

 

2) What can be said to be socially constructed ?

To answer this question, it is useful to make the difference between ideas and objects. Of course, ideas can be socially constructed. They only have to be presented as inevitable consequences of the nature of things whereas they are connected in fact to a certain society at a given period. However, objects, like people, actions or laws can also be said to be socially constructed. For example, a socially constructed idea can influence people or groups of people and define their behaviors or their identities. Moreover, the very same idea can also serve as a model for institutions or laws. In such a context, a whole set of objects get to look like the necessary result of the true nature of things while they are in fact the mere products of a certain social context. They can be said to be socially constructed.

 

3) Is the expression “social construction” has been overused?

Yes, it probably has. As I said previously, this phrase is often used to trigger a form of awareness because it has proved to be liberating. But it is also a code that enables to show how radical someone is. In some cases, one may even say that it has to do with a kind of conformist thought.

 

4) Are dollar bills socially constructed ?

No. They are not because the first condition is not fulfilled. It is obvious that dollar bills are the products of certain historical and social forces. Nobody thinks that they are the inevitable result of the nature of things.

 

5) If something is socially constructed, does that mean that there is no biological basis for it ?

No, it doesn’t. Regarding sexuality for instance, bodies, desires and impulses, among other things, obviously exist and are biologically determined. Biology in connection to sexuality offers certain possibilities while it also prevents some others. Yet, undoubtly, ideas that we produce about what is sexuality or what it should be can be said to be socially constructed (if they appear inevitable while they are not). And still, there are biological bases for sexuality.

 

6) Why is social construction relevant to discuss asexuality ?

To me, the main reason is that, as a movement, we question a certain number of deeply anchored beliefs about sexuality. It seems furthermore that a certain number of those beliefs are good-suited applicants to social construction. They seem inevitable, they appear as natural, but they are not. I have in mind ideas such as:

 

-Everyone desires sex and has pleasure having it.

-Sex is an essential part of what makes us human.

-Love and friendship are the only two types of intimate relationships.

-Not wanting sex is the result of an illness.

-Everybody experiences romantic feelings.

-All “normal” and “healthy” couples have sex.

-Etc.

Nowadays, all those assertions are largely accepted. Some of them are even presented as unavoidable and are envisaged as eternal truths. Thinking in terms of social construction enables to assert that they are not. They are definitely not eternal truths. They are the product of a specific social context at a given period in time. We can fight them and change them if we feel it is appropriate to do so. Moreover, thinking in terms of social construction can help to bear in mind the fact that even when we’re told the contrary, the way we are supposed to act and feel is not ordered by human nature.

 

More on this subject: here.

Edit : It was not the right link. I’ve modified it with the one I wanted to link : The Social Construction of What by Ian Hacking…

About Baptiste

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9 Responses to What is social construction and why is it relevant to discuss asexuality ?

  1. Siggy says:

    Thanks for the clean explanation! I want a few clarifications though. You say both ideas and objects can be socially constructed. What does it mean for an object to be socially constructed? Can you give an example?

    I also notice that all of your examples are a specific kind of idea: they are propositions. And I notice that calling these propositions social constructions is basically a way of saying that the propositions are not true. For example, it is not true that everyone desires sex and derives pleasure from sex. But calling something a social construction is not the same as calling it untrue, is it? Could you clarify?

    Lastly, it seems odd (but not necessarily incorrect) to say that something cannot be a social construction if it is “obvious” that they are products of social forces. If we somehow persuade everyone that universal sexual desire is a social construction, does that mean it is no longer a social construction because everyone knows it? I feel like it makes more sense to say that dollar bills are socially constructed, but that this fact is so uninteresting that it’s not worthwhile to talk about it as such.

  2. Calinlapin says:

    Let’s take “male sexual desire” as an example.

    Let’s say that we have made sociological inquiries about what the idea of male sexual desire is in our countries. Let say that the results are : male sexual desire is habitually conceptualized as powerful, natural, uncontrollable, penis and orgasm centered.

    Let’s also say that this idea is presented as a mere consequence of how the world is. Let’s finally add, that we, very clever social scientists, think that this idea could have been otherwise. That it can be molded otherwise. That it’s contingent.

    So this idea is by definition a socially constructed idea.

    Now, it seems reasonable to suppose that if a whole range of people think that this idea is an adequate description of the nature of the world, they’re going to act accordingly. Why resist right ?

    They, for instance, are going to have sex in a way that prioritize male orgasm. Penises will be at the center of heterosex. The male active role in heterosexual sex will be seen a mere consequence of the “powerful” nature of his desire. Etc.

    So, to answer your first question, socially constructed ideas can influence (here is the key-word) objects, in this case sexual acts. And so, those objects can be said to be socially constructed. Other objects that can be said to be socially constructed include institution, laws, practices, persons, etc.

    About your third question : I think you need to ask “What’s the point” as Ian Hacking once wrote. It will become clear if we take a look at some things/ideas that have been said to be socially constructed : heterosexism, the binary gender model, femininity, public schools, male sexual desire, heterosexual marriage, race, etc. Sometimes we’re talking about the idea, sometimes about the thing and sometimes both, but as you clearly see : those are highly political subjects. It’s always about what is just, what is not. What is hurtful and what is not. Nobody ever wrote the “social construction of elbows”, because nobody cares. Social construction talks are used to “call out” or to raise awareness about an issue.
    So, you’re asking why dollar bills are not said to be “socially constructed” ? I think the answer is : what’s the point to “call out” or raise awareness about a thing or an idea that everyone knows to be socially produced and contingent ?
    For instance, let’s say a book is published under the title : “The social construction of the American revolution”. You read the book and discover that it is in fact an history book. It describes the American revolution through an historical lens. It will look like a misuse of the term ‘social construction’ because it is obvious that the American revolution is a product of social forces.
    Now, on the contrary, let’s say that you read this book and realize that it is about the social construction of the *idea* of the American revolution. Now that’s interesting. And we know what to expect. The author is going to argue that the idea of the American revolution has been molded in a certain way. Certain characters have been constructed as heroes (whereas they were not), certain episode have been made into X whereas they were not. Etc.
    So yes, I think that social production and social construction are not the same thing. If it is obvious that something is socially produced, you won’t use social construction talks. Dollar bills (the things) are socially produced not constructed.

    About your second question, that’s complicated and I’m not sure to have though it out completely. But let’s say for argument sake that all socially constructed propositions (not objects obviously) are false. It does not mean that all false propositions are socially constructed. So, in all cases, saying that the proposition p is false is not the same thing as saying that p is socially constructed.

    • Siggy says:

      Thanks for the reply, that cleared a few things up.

      To be clear, I wasn’t trying to say that “X is a social construction” implies “X is false”. I was just observing that each example you gave in the post was a false proposition. I think this has more to do with which examples you chose.

  3. Andrew says:

    Your first condition for saying that something is a social construct would probably more accurately be stated to be a felicity condition (in Austin’s sense) than a truth condition. As such, it’s not false to say that dollar bills are socially constructed, it’s just that it’s pointless.

    As it stands, the given definition has some rather peculiar consequences. First, according to it, gender probably isn’t a social construct simply because so many people say “gender is a social construct”: If you type “gender is” into google, one of the suggestions is “gender is a social construct.” As such, saying X is a social construct enough time may make itself false. Second, while gender probably isn’t and dollar bills definitely aren’t social constructs according to the above definition, hydrogen might be. It’s an open (and probably unanswerable) question whether, had things turned out differently, science could have decided on some other (but equally explanatory) concept/set of concepts that those it has settled on for things presently listed in the periodic table. My suspicion is that, given how human brains work, it probably was inevitable, but it remains an open question whether there exists some species somewhere in the universe with advanced problem solving abilities that conceptualizing things very differently than us that has a very different concept from “hydrogen” that still permits them to do the same sorts of things (in terms of prediction and technology) as our concept. If there are, hydrogen IS a social construct by your definition, though “human construct” would probably be more appropriate.

    As such, by the given definition of “social construct”, hydrogen might be a social construct and gender probably isn’t, and yet there are 0 hits for “hydrogen is a social construct” and 132,000 for “gender is a social construct.”

    • Calinlapin says:

      I don’t think that’s peculiar; On the contrary, this is (for me) precisely the point of social constructionism ! If you raise sufficient awareness on an issue, what was a social construction is exposed for what it is : a social production.
      Let’s take gender expression, for instance. In certain circles, gender expression is largely exposed as a social construct and *thus* conceived as a mere social product. Some people have preferences for certain types of gender expressions, but it is clear that gender expressions are not the *necessary consequences* of the so-called natures of masculinity or femininity.
      As for your affirmation that “gender isn’t a social construct” (anymore), I’d say that we’re not here there. Really.

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  5. Marc Atkins says:

    This is my first time reading this blog and it is fascinating. I won’t pretend to know as much as you or your other readers. Disclaimers aside, here goes.
    It seems to me that gender is two things, fact and social construction. There is anatomy, male and female (and perhaps that is not the true definition of gender, but sex, maybe?) and there are the beliefs and practices (you used “expression”) associated with both. In one culture, men, heterosexual men, are accustomed to touching or kissing each other, while in western culture that behavior is perceived as homosexual and thusly, bad. Wouldn’t that be evidence of non-anatomic gender being a social construction? Blue is for boys, pink is for girls, boys are rough and girls are gentle, etc. Perhaps that is an over-simplication or just wrong. I was also thinking that even a person of faith, one who accepts God as fact, would have to accept religion as a social construction. (Even if) God is fact, I would argue, religion is the ritual, the practice and comprehension of that God. The differences in practices, rituals and comprehensions of various religions, sects or cultures demonstrate that it is a social construct. That being said, is social construction bad by definition or just most often bad? Am I even on track?

    • Siggy says:

      I don’t think being a social construction is bad at all. It’s just that when something is a social construction but no one has a problem with it, few people are interested in pointing it out. When someone says, “That’s a social construction,” they’re usually trying to criticize people for believing it to be objective reality, when in their view it is something that can be changed (and often they’re trying to say it should be changed).

      When people say gender is a social construction, I don’t think they are trying to argue that gender is bad. (Or, if that is what they’re saying, then they’re making the incorrect assumption that social constructions are bad.) Rather, they’re trying to argue that gender could be different. And from there it’s not such a stretch to say gender could be improved.

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