I was inspired to make this post because of the mass confusion on tumblr about what social constructs are and how they function. I will start with a simple example:
This is a one dollar bill. It is an excellent example of a social construct. This piece of paper represents a specific amount of spending power in the society that it exists in (the USA). An individual person could decide personally that it represents 1000$ worth of spending power, but it would not matter because like all social constructs, the collective agreement between individuals in society is what determines the meaning of the construct. There are laws on the books about currency but it doesn’t stop society from changing the meaning of a dollar; after all, in times of scarcity a dollar is a much more valuable asset than in times of plenty. The exact value of a dollar is something that fluctuates in tune with other factors, including things like consumer confidence- meaning, how consumers feel about the economy. Social constructs can change based on changes of opinion in the population.
One way to test if something is a social construct is to remove it from its native society and see if it retains the same functionality. The US dollar is accepted in some foreign countries, but in other places, it is just a piece of paper.
Another way to test if something is a social construct is to remove people from the picture entirely and see if it retains its functionality. Without people to give a dollar meaning it simply becomes paper.
Contrast the attributes of a dollar with say, biological sex.
Male humans produce sperm and much higher levels of testosterone than females. Females produce ova and offspring if their eggs are fertilized and implanted. Individuals who are sterile still have either male or female anatomy which serves sexual functions for the individual. Virtually everyone on earth qualifies as one sex or the other, with or without malfunctioning or variations. Is this binary a social construct?
Does the collective agreement of society give male and female organs their functionality? Absolutely not. Humans did not always have an understanding of how pregnancy happened, and yet it happened anyway. Individuals who don’t know about or understand reproduction can and do get pregnant via sex. No matter how many people got together and decided that females inseminate males there would be no change in the function of testes or ovaries.
The functionality of human reproductive organs is also impervious to cultural or geographical differences. All over the world people get pregnant and have babies by mixing sperm from males with ova from females. There is no exception.
Removing humans from the equation also has no effect on the biological reality of mammalian reproduction. Male mammals are male, female mammals are female, and only one of the two can give birth.
Biological sex is not and never has been a social construct.
Another example is gender. Femininity is the easiest example to discuss. Lets look at different examples of femininity from around the world:
As you can see, what it means to be feminine or girly is very different depending upon the society. None of these is the “correct” femininity, just different versions from different cultures. There is no objective way to determine what makes someone feminine in any given culture- you have to ask people.
The nature of femininity is totally subjective and relies on the collective agreement of society. If you move one of these women into a different society their defining feminine characteristics instead become physical characteristics with no gender designation at all. In fact, what would make you gender conforming in one culture would make you gender non conforming in another. Gender also changes in individual societies over time, so the meaning of being feminine in America in the 1800s would differ markedly from what it means to be feminine in America right now. How people feel about the construct changes its meaning.Thus we can easily say that gender is a social construct.