Everyone’s using “social construct” wrong


Dr. Seers is close.

A “social construct”–in the context of groups of people–is just a stereotype. We’ll call it an “idealized version.” We learn this idealized version by interacting with many individual instances of a particular type of thing and learning to predict its typical behaviors and characteristics.

Suppose I asked you to draw a picture of a man and woman. Go ahead, if you want; then you can compare it to the draw-a-man test.

Out in reality, there are about 7 billion men and women; there is no way you drew someone who looks like all of them. Chances are you drew the man somewhat taller than the woman, even though in reality, there are millions of men and women who are the same height. You might have even drawn hair on the figures–long hair for the woman, short for the man–and some typical clothing, even though you know there are many men with long hair and women with short.

In other words, you drew an idealized version of the pair in order to make it clear to someone else what, exactly, you were drawing.

Our idealized pictures work because they are true on average. The average woman is shorter than the average man, so we draw the woman shorter than the man–even though we know perfectly well that short men exist.

Once an ideal exists, people (it seems) start using artificial means to try to achieve it (like wearing makeup,) which shifts the average, which in turn prompts people to take more extreme measures to meet that ideal.

This may lead to run-away beauty or masculinity trends that look completely absurd from the outside, like foot binding, adult circumcision rituals, or peacocks’ tails. Or breasts–goodness knows why we have them while not nursing.

Our idealized images work less well for people far from the average, or who don’t want to do the activities society has determined are necessary to meet the ideal.

Here’s an interesting survey of whether people (in this case, whites) consider themselves masculine or feminine, broken down by political orientation.

“In General, would you describe yourself as…”

The same trend holds for women–conservative women are much more likely to consider themselves to be very feminine than liberal women. Of course, ideology has an effect on people’s views, but the opposite is probably also true–people who don’t feel like they meet gender ideals are more likely to think those ideals are problematic, while people who do meet them are more likely to think they are perfectly sensible.

And this sort of thinking applies to all sorts of groups–not just men and women. Conservatives probably see themselves as better encapsulating the ideal of their race, religion, nationality (not just American conservatives, but conservatives of all stripes,) while liberals are probably more likely to see themselves as further from these ideals. The chief exceptions are groups where membership is already pre-determined as liberal, like vegetarians.

esquireThis may also account for the tendency people have, especially of late, to fight over certain representations. An idealized representation of “Americans” may default to white, since whites are still the majority in this country, but our growing population of non-whites would also like to be represented. This leads to pushback against what would be otherwise uncontroversial depictions (and the people who fit the ideal are not likely to appreciate someone else trying to change it on them.)


10 thoughts on “Everyone’s using “social construct” wrong

    • Something is “natural” if it’s socially unmediated and inevitable. Gender is socially mediated and not inevitable; gender constructs change with the time. Therefore, gender isn’t “natural.”


  1. I think you are making the exact same mistake again that DR criticized two years ago: https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/sex-is-not-a-social-construct/

    The ideal is not simply an average. If you count the legs of 1000 people and you find the number is about 1950, so the average person has 1.95 legs and the typical person has 2 (I avoid using median and mean as I tend to confuse them) – this all means little. What matters is that humans were selected for locomotion on two legs, this blueprint was copied a gazillion times, outcompeted other potential plueprints, like, say, knuckle-dragging, the way normal human locomotion works is with two legs, and having one or zero is dysfunctional, abnormal, be that a birth defect or a traffic accident.

    There is biological selection and there is social selection, and maybe some confusion comes from just not noticing social selection is a lot like biological selection, isn’t an arbitrary construct. Having a fire department for firefighting instead of handing this job to the police, to the ambulance, or random citizens, is a blueprint for solving a problem that got selected because of being better than others and then copied all over the world. This works very similarly to natural selection. Of course the real function of a thing can be different than its purported function. Like, the purported function of newspapers is that people want to get entertained and their curiosity informed, but one may think their real function is propaganda. We can only figure it out by digging into the selection and copying process, not easy, especially to decide to look at exactly which selection and copying to look at: the format of newspapers, or the way their content is written?

    The ideal of women and men comes not from averages but first biological selection for being ideally fit for their different roles in the ancestral environment, and then social selection for things that work differently in the modern world.

    Then again you have to consider what matters. Like, the color of baby clothes do not really. Yes, blue or pink are pretty arbitrary and only people who like to waste money care, our daughter when she was a baby had mostly green clothes, because we figured if we get a boy as a second child we can reuse the clothes without people looking at us funny.

    Hair length does not matter either, yet, even in that there is some reasonable for of social selection. Men used to have long hair up to the 19th century where civilian male style began to imitate military fashion, both in suits, and in things like hair (soldiers had short hair simply because of lice problems). Imitating soldiers, warriors, sending a tough-guy message is absolutely functional, and men did this all the time, it was only the form that changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A “social construct”–in the context of groups of people–is just a stereotype.

    This is not what the left means when they talk about it. What they mean is a stereotype that is created by “society”. Hence the “construct”. The thing about constructs is they can be changed at the will of the creator. It is perhaps hard to change them once constructed, but it’s easy to change the plans before you build one, and build something else entirely.


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