Now, let’s reset quickly a social construction, shall we? Here we go.
noun /ˌsəʊʃl ˈkɒnstrʌkt/
A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.
Difference, then, is a concept or perception based on the collective views of a society or social group, which does not exist naturally.
Right, so difference does not occur naturally. However, the word difference is used constantly. Really. Think about how often you say that word. Now, think about how often you hear that word utilized. Often, I’m sure.
Yet, according to social constructionism difference is all created in language. All of it. Meaning that difference is only as real as long as we continue to create it as real. Think about that for a minute.
Difference is only as real as long as we continue to create it as real.
Phew, that’s pretty powerful. Why? Well, before we get to that question, there are two new aspects to social constructionism to introduce here. Ready? Good. Here we go.
The first? Yep.
Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society but we also accept it as it is because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, “habit.”
For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.
Now, why are habitualization and institutionalization important to the discussion of difference? Good question.
Because, essentially, society is in a pattern of continuously creating difference, which has thus become institutionalized and generally accepted as fact.
Even though difference is not a naturally occurring phenomenon or fact. Difference is still real in accord with the consequences that stem from such socially constructed differences.
Yep, that last part, that these social constructions are real in their consequences is another sociological theory. Here you go.
Another way of looking at this concept is through W.I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behavior can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. For example, a teenager who is repeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum—might live up to the term even though it initially wasn’t a part of [their] character.
Now, what happens when you take a concept such as difference, defined as separate and not the same, and you habitulize and institutionalize that concept? You get the Thomas Theorem. Meaning?
That now you have a socially constructed concept, difference, and have created a reality that continuously creates difference each and every day. Yep. And, who does this you ask?
Well, everyone does. Remember, based on the definition, a social construct is a concept that is agreed upon in a society.
There is, of course, a spectrum here. Meaning, that some people are aware of how difference operates, and some are not. The former people may have noble intentions, and might not.
And, the latter, well, they are in habitualization without awareness. And, that happens too. It’s not a judgment, or justification, it just occurs that way.
And, what does this mean to individuals? Right, another good question. Here we go.
Like Berger and Luckmann in their description of habitualization, Thomas states that our moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” This concept is defined by sociologist Robert K. Merton as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false idea can become true if it is acted upon.
There we go. And, let’s have one more important quote here to assist in our discussion.
“Most (and probably all) societies exist with systems of social division and social stratification, through which entire categories of people are elevated above others, providing one segment of the population with a disproportionate amount of money, power and prestige” (Macionis and Plummer 2012:232).
Because difference is not wielded within a vacuum. Nope. Difference is wielded though very distinct power structures, which continue to perpetuate that difference. Important.
Yet, what is really different? Not much in fact. Facts? Sure.
People are more similar to each other than they are different. Biologically, we are more homogenous than we are heterogeneous. That is the bottom line. Biologically we are very much alike. Almost identical, in fact.
What does this mean?
That all of the difference we ascribe to individuals and groups of people are created in language and acted out through socialization, creating habits that are continuously repeated, which are then institutionalized as factual, and affected to and by each and every one of us on some level.
Phew, that was a lot. Hm. Right, so where do we go from here?
Awareness and Resistance
Yep, awareness and resistance. And? Well, awareness is first.
When we are aware of how these concepts function in language and are codified in social structures, we can choose to let them go and create a new way of thinking and acting. Truth. And?
It all starts with us disrupting our patterns and habits. Really. All of them. Questioning why we do the things we do, and then looking internally to find out if those habits or patterns make sense any more.
If they do? Okay, keep doing them. If they don’t? Let them go and create something new.
Every time we create a new pattern or habit, we are actively releasing the continuation of what was, or the status quo, and that? Well, that is an act of resistance. Social resistance, if you will. And?
Well, often people mistakenly believe that the only social resistance that leads to social change must happen on a grand scale right away. There was a time I thought this way. Really. And?
It’s just not so. Social change more often happens within small actions that lead to larger actions that then lead to large-scale social change.
Just take a look around the United States right now, and you will see a legacy of active social resistance in the streets right now. Yep.
And, that started with various individuals actively disrupting and then releasing an old pattern or habit, and creating a new one. Just like that. Beautiful to see, and even more beautiful to be a part of.
Now, I have more to say, however, this is a series, therefore we will get to continue our discussion of social constructionism in the near future. Until then?
Question the concepts you hold and the habits you have and see if they still work for you. And, if not, release them, and create something new. That’s pretty much it, and that is powerful. You are powerful.
Have you ever heard of the phrase a social construction? Maybe? Well, I hadn’t heard of it until I went back to school in my early 30’s. I was in a class on gender, and the professor said something like, gender is socially constructed.
At first, I was like, wait, what? I had no idea what the professor was talking about. Nope, not at all. As the professor continued to explain the concept, I almost fell out of my chair. Seriously. I was so baffled, confused, and interested, all at the same time.
I grew up in a family where ideas like social constructs were unavailable. Not a judgment, just reality. And, it’s okay. There are many, many families across this country that don’t have access to these kinds of ideas, and knowledge. Part of my passion and mission. Dissemination. Here we go.
Let’s define social constructionism.
“Social constructionism is a general term sometimes applied to theories that emphasize the socially created nature of social life. Of course, in one sense all sociologists would argue this, so the term can easily become devoid of meaning. More specifically, however, the emphasis on social constructionism is usually traced back at least to the work of William Isaac Thomas and the Chicago sociologists, as well as the phenomenological sociologists and philosophers such as Alfred Schutz. Such approaches emphasize the idea that society is actively and creatively produced by human beings. They portray the world as made or invented—rather than merely given or taken for granted. Social worlds are interpretive nets woven by individuals and groups.“
Alright, so the basic idea is that all of life, all if it, is socially constructed. Meaning, simply, that all that we know is created again and again by people. These creations are then shared between and within groups. Shared meaning is derived from these created social constructs, or concepts. What concepts you ask?
Tree. Sun. Love. Life. Health.
All things we see and know. They are all socially constructed. Sometimes groups share and agree on their meaning across cultures, sometimes there are variations specific to particular cultures or geographies.
Why does it matter?
Because if everything we see and know is socially constructed, then all that we argue about, disagree about, and sometimes fight about is based upon ideas and ideals that are created. Created by people.
Understanding that the world is socially constructed is very important.
Important to individuals and how they internalize and understand their place in the world; and, it is also important to how groups understand their relation to each other.
When we know that everything is socially constructed, we have freedom from ideas and concepts, because we know they are not naturally occurring.
You may say, well, love is love and I know what that is, and how it feels to be in love. Yes. And, I am saying that love, even though you feel it, and know it, is still a concept. It is a concept associated with a particular way of being and feeling.
And, guess what? Naturally occurring, or biological concepts, are also social constructions. Tree. Yep. Biological, right? Yet, a tree is still a concept. Believe me. There was a time when a tree was not called a tree. A tree is a concept.
Alright, let’s look at 7 reasons why understanding social constructionsis important.
Gives us freedom from concepts.
Creates access to new knowledge and power.
Provides us a new perspective on how the world occurs.
Empowers us to understand why we internalize concepts as real, even when they are not.
Helps us understand each other on a deeper level.
Assists groups in understanding each other; either how they relate, or how they differ.
Creates an important distinction about language. How we use it, and how it affects how we see and experience ourselves, each other, and the world.
How can you use this information?
Question everything. Important. Here is a quote about questioning that I love.
“We awaken by asking the right questions. We awaken when we see knowledge being spread that goes against our own personal experiences. We awaken when we see popular opinion being wrong but accepted as being right, and what is right being pushed as being wrong. We awaken by seeking answers in corners that are not popular. And we awaken by turning on the light inside when everything outside feels dark.” -Suzy Kassem
You can find quote after quote online about asking questions. Really. Asking questions is that important. Questioning that which others take for granted as real, or right, or wrong, gives you an immediate advantage. How?
Because most people won’t ask. They believe in what they see, hear, feel, and think they know. Why? It’s easier. More comfortable. Not a judgment. It’s okay not to question.
However, when we ask our questions, and actively participate in the contexts we are living in, we get back much more. Much, much more.
My invitation to you is to ask questions. You know, the ones that you’ve been holding onto for years. You know they’re there. And, it’s okay. It’s even okay to hold onto them, if you want to. However, it is way more fun to ask them. Way more. 🙂
Alright, that concludes the first part of the social construction series. Next time? Funny you should ask. I’ve already come up with it.
The social construction of knowledge. Will be fun.
Ever thought about the power of language? Yes, no? I hadn’t until about three years ago. Why? Well, as I’ve mentioned in many of my posts, about three years ago I began to develop myself, really develop.
And, when you work on yourself, from the inside out, which is the only real way, you begin to understand the power that we, you, hold within you. It is a vast power, and language is a part of that power.
Before we begin to look at the power of language, let’s start with a definition.
NOUN 1. The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.
Alright, pretty straightforward, right? Do you read anything in there about the power of language? No, me either. However, it’s there, believe me. Let’s take a look then at 4 reasons why language is so powerful.
1. Language is what we use to create meaning
As I’ve written about in other posts, human beings are meaning-makers. We continuously construct narratives, or stories, about life. We take in information, a stimulus, and we convert that information into a patterned story about how we perceive ourselves. Then we respond.
We respond from the space of the story. From the beliefs we hold about who we are. Can you see the power in that. Pretty powerful.
For instance, if we believe we are limited, because someone told us that when we were little, we will respond from a space of limit. Without thinking about it. Important.
In this example, it’s not as if we are consciously thinking about these limitations. These limitations live in the stories we tell ourselves, and others about who we are. They operate independently. Aware of them or not, they are there. Powerful.
Imagine deciding to not do something because someone told us not to do that thing when we were little. If we really sit inside of this concept, it may fill us with sadness.
Know, however, that at the end of this article we will discuss how to get in touch with the stories we have. Why? Because when we are aware of them, even though we don’t know all of them, we can choose a different response. We can create new stories.
2. Language is what we use to communicate
Though verbal and written communication are not the only ways we communicate with each other, they are two of the primary ways we do so. We take that which we know to be “true,” drawn from the stories we have about ourselves, and use it to construct language to communicate with people.
Further, when we communicate with people, and they do or say something to confirm the story we have about ourselves, that story becomes more codified.
These stories, then, have been “confirmed” over years and years of inner-dialogue, and are also “proven” by those we interact with. Complex. And simple.
For instance, if I believe that I am limited, and act that way, then those around me, after time, will stop asking me to do things that stretch me, or make me uncomfortable.
Not because they don’t want me to stretch and grow, rather because I always say no. I confirm for them my own self-perceived limitation. And, in return, they confirm that limitation in my mind by not asking me to stretch and grow.
Thomas Cooley wrote about this concept over 100 years ago.
“The looking-glass self describes the process wherein individuals base their sense of self on how they believe others view them. Using social interaction as a type of “mirror,” people use the judgments they receive from others to measure their own worth, values, and behavior”
And, then sociologist Erving Goffman took Cooley’s work further.
“The term ‘symbolic interactionism’ refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or ‘define’ each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Their ‘response’ is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions.” (Blumer, p. 180, in Paul Gingrich)
Therefore, how we think is how we act, believe, and perceive. And, those around us do the same. Have you ever had an interaction with someone that didn’t know you, and they interacted with you in a way that didn’t fit the story you have of yourself? Yes? What did you do?
Did you align with your own story about the person you believe yourself to be? Or, did you act in a different way? Most of the time, people will continue to behave as they have, which is consistent with the actions, beliefs, and perceptions they have of who they are.
Reason? Because to act, believe, and perceive otherwise is incongruent with their perceived identity. And, all of it, the actions we take, and the beliefs and perceptions we have first of all live in language. That is powerful.
3. Language is what we use to make sense of the world
When you look out your window, what do you see? A tree? A bush? The sun or moon? Whatever you see, and the words you use to describe the world all live in language. All of it.
Think about the word sun. Where did that come from? Well, let’s take a quick look.
“Old English sunne, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zon and German Sonne, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek hēlios and Latin sol .”
And, even cursory searches of the internet will show that the roots of the word sun cross cultures.
“This is ultimately related to the word for “sun” in other branches of the Indo-European language family, though in most cases a nominative stem with an l is found, rather than the genitive stem in n, as for example in Latin sōl, Greek ἥλιος hēlios, Welsh haul and Russian солнце solntse (pronounced sontse), as well as (with *l > r) Sanskrit स्वर svár and Persian خور xvar. Indeed, the l-stem survived in Proto-Germanic as well, as *sōwelan, which gave rise to Gothic sauil (alongside sunnō) and Old Norse prosaic sól (alongside poetic sunna), and through it the words for “sun” in the modern Scandinavian languages: Swedish and Danish solen, Icelandic sólin, etc.”
Yet, is the sun, the sun? Or is it a star? Same with a tree. Is a tree, a tree? Or, is it something else. The point? That the language we use to describe the world becomes just that. The world we see. The world we know.
When we see a tree, we don’t question the fact that at some point a tree was not called a tree. Nor was the sun called the sun. They were called something else, or nothing at all.
The relationship we have with the language we use to describe the world we see and perceive as our reality, is therefore extremely important, and powerful. It must be.
4. Language is what we use to create our reality
Yep. Truth. Language is what we use to create meaning, to communicate, to understand the world, and to create our reality. In another post, I wrote something like, there are 7 billion different realities on this planet. Truth. How’s that?
Because we all understand our reality as we understand it. Yes, based on the stories we are told about who we are, the stories we then create to fit these stories, and the conformations we get from those around us that codify our notions of the stories we know to be true about who we are.
And, that is creating our reality. One thought, belief, and perception at a time.
However, because language, and our interpretation of it, is so powerful, we can also use language to create a different reality, with different stories, beliefs, and perceptions. Yep, we can.
As with most things, first you need to be aware of the power of language. Check. Then, it is about learning to notice when you are creating a reality that consistently fits the story of who you think you are. If that is what you want for your reality. Awesome. Done. If not?
Once you are aware, and notice how you consistently continue to create a response to a stimulus that is in alignment with, let us say, limitation, you can begin to choose a different response.
A response that aligns with the reality you now want to create. A reality without limits. Powerful.
Phew, that was a lot. More than I expected in this one post. Yet, because language is so powerful, there is a lot more to write about. A lot more.
Yet we will leave that to a future post.
Language is powerful. We can use language to confirm all the things we think about ourselves, given to us by someone else, and continuously confirmed by ourselves and everyone around us. OR.
We can use language to disrupt that which we believe we know about ourselves, and use the power of language to create a whole new reality for ourselves. And, guess what?
Everytime someone chooses disruption over the status quo, everyone benefits. All of humanity does.