Whenever a discussion of gender comes around, the idea of social constructs is always tagging along, these concepts forever being associated with one another. But what does it mean to say that gender is socially constructed? People usually have an inkling of an idea, but discussions about the topic often fall to the way side because it is clear that people do not have a clear understanding of what they are talking about. If one wants to talk about social construction, then one needs to establish specifically what is meant when one says that X is a social construct. Once I do that, I will apply the theory of social construction to gender and lay out one of the feminist arguments for the social construction of gender. Finally, I will go through the limitations of the feminist view on gender as a social construction and provide a modified view of gender that I think is more grounded in biological realism.
Social constructs are used as a part of a larger theory of knowledge and human development, which emphasizes the importance of the social situation and how that influences how we come to know things and also how we develop into who we are. This can be understood by dividing social construction up into multiple dimensions. I think there are four dimensions to social construction that can intersect with one another in the form of a Punnett square. The first two dimensions are idea construction and object construction. The second two dimensions are emergent constructions and conscious constructions.
An idea construction is most obviously understood as a category of objects, with associated traits attached to them. These categories can be of anything, but in this context we will be focusing on categories of people. Categories are constructed in the sense that they have no ontological presence in reality. They are a psychological construct that humans generate socially. Human beings talk and act like these categories of people exist in reality, and through the subsequent social interactions, the categories become reified (1). An example of an idea construction would be the categories of rich and poor, or the 1% and the 99%. Wealth differences exist on a spectrum, with no obvious discrete boundaries separating people into different groups. The categories of rich and poor are socially constructed groups of people.
An object construction is most obviously understood as socialization or social learning. The objects in question are individual people, and they are constructed through the interactions with other people in a particular social situation. People learn how to behave properly by paying attention to the social cues around them. Generally speaking, there exists a majority consensus among a group of people who proceed to punish and reward themselves and the other minority of social actors through threats of social ostracization, among other things. The result is that people within a social context are constructed to follow certain norms through social interactions with others (1). An example of this would be moral norms within a particular social context. If the majority of people believe that lying is wrong in a particular social context, then they will enforce a norm amongst themselves and the other minority by refusing to associate with people who lie. This motivates people to toe the line and eschew lying, thus constructing their morals.
An emergent construction is something that emerges from the interactions of individual people in an environmental context over the course of time. This process is defined by the fact that it is not something that is consciously decided upon. It is a bottom up process that is not directed by any given social actor, but instead grows out the situation. Emergent constructs evolve and adapt over time through experience with the natural world. As a result, they become attuned to the psychology and the natural environment that the people are living in. An example of an emergent construction is language. Language is not something that is dictated from the top down. If any given dictionary added a new word to their list, the general population would not necessarily follow along. This is because language is a bottom up process, where terms and their usage grow out of the interactions of people. Language usage changes over time because people follow trends, and usually not because people consciously want to change the language.
A conscious construction is most obviously understood as the opposite of emergent constructs. Rather than being something that unconsciously grows out the interactions amongst many different individuals, these constructs are consciously decided upon and are usually enforced through the power of institutions or through powerful forms of socialization. There is usually an explicit reason for these constructs, whether that is political or scientific. An example of a conscious construction would be non-binary genders and the associated pronouns. These are social categories of people that were constructed specifically for people who feel like they do not fit into the male or the female gender categories in society. Further, the construction is something that is enforced with strong socialization, where people who do not comply with these constructions are accused of denying trans people their right to exist. Strong socialization is necessary given that the construction did not grow out of the interactions naturally, but is being enforced from the top down by a smaller class of people.
As should be evident, these four different dimensions to social construction fit into a Punnett square, such that there are four different intersections of possible social constructs. There are emergent idea constructions, emergent object constructions, conscious idea constructions, and conscious object constructions.
Gender as a Social Construct
Before I get into the social construction of gender, it is important establish that when gender is being spoken about, it is referring to the social and cultural roles applied to the male and female sexes respectively.
When the claim is made that gender is a social construct, the substance of such a statement is two fold: first that gender is an idea construction, in the sense that the categories of gender are constructed, and second that gender is an object construction, in the sense that the people who are being categorized are socialized to fit the categories. The social construction of gender happens through the interaction between the idea construction of gender and the object construction of gender.
The process starts with the idea of gender categories. There is the idea of what a man is, with the associated propositions, and there is the idea of what a woman is, with the associated propositions. A man is strong and capable of supporting a family with his work. A woman is caring and capable of raising a family. Those of the male sex are placed in this category of man, and so it goes with the female sex. This constructed category then interacts with the actual people within the category. The people come to believe that this category is real and that they should adhere to it. This leads to the object construction, where the male and female sexes are subject to socialization in accordance with these categories. The categories are then further reified and reinforced by the object construction. This is what it means to say that the idea construction of gender interacts with the object construction of gender. The idea informs the socialization process and creates a feedback loop, where the socialization further reinforces the idea.
The fact that women were limited to the home life and men were the ones out in the world making history is evidence that men have had a disproportionate influence on the construction of ideas. Men are primarily the ones that construct the gender categories and they define them in such a way that they privilege themselves over women. This is the root of women’s oppression, which feminism declares itself to be against. They desire to increase the amount of influence that women have on the construction of ideas and take steps to redefine what gender means. The specifics depend on the brand of feminism we are talking about.
On the face of it, the feminist case for the social construction of gender seems rather straightforward. However, there are some underlying assumptions to their model of gender that I believe need to be addressed.
The first underlying assumption is the axiom that human behavior is one of two possibilities: that it is natural and inevitable, or that it is an arbitrary convention that can be changed. This assumption is a false dichotomy that forces one’s position to either extreme. You either believe human behavior is genetically determined and will never vary, or you believe that human behavior is merely a socially constructed convention that can be changed at will. This is wrong for two reasons, the first having to do with idea construction, the second having to do with object construction.
Ideas—or more specifically, categories—do not fall into the natural or conventional dichotomy. There are few categories that actually exist in nature, in the sense that they have essential properties that set them apart from one another. The natural elements are good examples of natural kinds. However, categories like species and social groups of people are not distinct natural kinds. There are competing ways to define species, each with their own complications, and the categorization of the genders is even more varied and dubious, as not all men or women fit the traditional social and cultural schema. At the same time, to say that these categories are completely conventional is not entirely true. If I claim that men are taller than women, this is not just an arbitrary convention, given that an objective marker is being referenced: men on average are taller than women. So that category is not natural, because not all men are taller than women, but it is not pure convention either, because there are actual differences in the average male and female height.
Objects—or more specifically, people—do not fall into the natural or conventional dichotomy either. By natural I mean that the behavior is genetically determined and by conventional I mean behavior is socially constructed. No human behavior is genetically determined. Such a belief is obsolete and remains alive today only as a frivolous accusation against scientists who believe that genetics influence behavior (note that determined and influence are not the same thing). Not very much behavior is solely socially constructed, either. Take moral norms against murder. The specifics of what qualifies as murder may be constructed, but every society agrees that murder exists in some form and that it should be punished. The field of molecular genetics supports this, suggesting that nature and nurture, or nature and convention, are just false dichotomies. All human behavior can be considered a phenotype, which necessitates both genetic and environmental information to manifest itself.
What this means is that the behavioral differences between the sexes can be explained by both genetic differences and differences in socialization. The assumption that because socialization exists, we can therefore assume that it accounts for all of the difference, to the exclusion of genetics, is unfounded. A good example of this would be strength differences between the sexes. We know that men are stronger than women, on average, because at the extremes of our abilities, within the Olympics, men outperform women. However, we also know that men are expected and encouraged by society to be strong, while women are discouraged, as it is considered unattractive.
Indeed, you could apply the previous model of social construction to what I am talking about. The process starts with the natural sex differences in strength, which differ on average. People recognize this behavior and construct generalized categories of men and women based on their observations: men are physically strong and women are physically weak. These abstracted categories then inform a socialization process, where men are expected to be strong and women are discouraged from being strong. The socialization ensures that any exceptions to the rule are toeing the line and working themselves up towards this abstract standard being set for them, which further reinforces the categories that have been constructed: a feedback loop. In short, the strength differences between the sexes are explained by both genetic differences and socialization.
The feminist model, because of this natural/conventional dichotomy, incorrectly assumes that if there is some social construction/convention involved, that there couldn’t be genetic differences. This does not logically follow.
The second underlying assumption is that a socialization process can be kicked off by an idea that has been constructed. In the feminist model, the information that enters the system starts with an idea. An idea is constructed and this kick starts the process. The problem with this is that the model does not really explain where this idea came from. The model says that disproportionate male influence leads to the construction of these patriarchal ideas, but if men are socially constructed too, then they can’t be the source of the ideas. So where do these ideas come from; what influences the construction of this idea? Compare the feminist model with my explanation of how strength differences between the genders manifest. The process is kick started, not by an idea, but by the reality that there are biological differences between the sexes. The idea comes from inductive reasoning. This grounds my model in reality. Ideas are abstractions with no metaphysical essence beyond being brains states and therefore cannot be relied upon to ground your model in reality.
The response to this would be to claim that pregnancy is the reality that informs the construction of the idea of gender. The fact that women get pregnant informs the idea that women are the primary caregivers of children, which then kick starts the social construction process. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I will have more to add in the next section of this post, which will destabilize the entire argument.
The final underlying assumption is that the social construction process takes place in a veritable vacuum. The model ignores, or strongly deemphasizes the importance of, not only genetic influences, but also of the natural environmental forces that inform social organization. By extension, this ignorance leads to their side stepping of two dimensions of social construction that I mentioned in the beginning: emergent constructs and conscious constructs. Most feminist theorists seem to treat all social constructs as being consciously created by social beings. This is reflected in their pinning the blame of traditional gender roles on men. Men mistreated women by consciously constructing roles in society that subordinated women to their will. But is it really accurate to assume that gender is a conscious construction? What if gender was an emergent construction that evolved and adapted over time to fit the sexes within a particular environmental context? Indeed, all traditions are emergent constructs, rather than conscious ones, having evolved and adapted over time to a particular group of people in a particular environment.
Social Construction and Biological Realism
I think there can be some reconciliation between the social construction model of gender and a biological realist model of gender. The objective of my model is to represent human behavior along gender lines throughout the years, leading up until today.
My model describes a process that begins with three underlying realities. These three realities are as follows: the fact that in pre-industrial societies, the kinds of jobs that any person had access to was largely restricted and focused on hard physical labor; the fact that before the 1960s, a reliable form of birth control was not available; and the fact that there are genetic differences between the sexes that influence their behaviors. The first two facts posed a significant constraint on women’s options in life. Not only were most of the jobs outside of the home centered on physical labor that men were more suited for, but women lacked reliable birth control, which vastly increased the likelihood of a woman getting pregnant when she had sex. The third fact states that genetic influences on male and female behavior lead to average differences in how they behave. This biological realist perspective will be expanded upon at the end of this section.
These three underlying realities ensured that the majority of women chose to remain in the homes, while also ensuring that the majority of the men chose to leave the home to work for the family (particularly in a pre-industrial society). These norms were recognized as a pattern, and the idea of what a man and what a women were was constructed inductively. These were categories that contained many different propositions, centered on what a man and woman were like. These categories informed the socialization process and allowed for the construction of the objects (or people). The exceptions to the rule were encouraged socially to conform to the ideal standard and this further reinforced the categories of gender.
An important takeaway is that I reject the claim that men and the ideas they pushed were the driving force behind the construction of gender in a society. The traditional gender roles did not exist because the men, pushing sexist ideas, took control of society and excluded women from the public sphere against their will. The roles existed because of the three underlying realities enumerated before. This is not to say that social norms did not exist and did not have any exclusionary force on anyone, but that these norms were merely reinforcing the existing social reality by generalizing it out, rather than driving the existence of the social reality.
It should go without saying that my model of gender is an emergent construction. There are no conscious social actors directing this process by deliberately constructing the categories. The ideas of what men and women are—and the behaviors that they are socialized into—grew out of the situations our species found themselves in, evolving over time to match our psychology, physicality, and environmental context.
The first two underlying realities that I enumerated before are pretty straightforward. The third underlying reality is where I expect people to balk, especially if they are sympathetic to the idea that gender is a social construct. In response, I have a series of facts that I think are important to take into consideration.
Men and women tend to have different brain structures (2). This is not to say that there is a “male brain” or a “female brain,” but that there are tendencies towards different brain structures. Men and women have generally different hormone levels, with men having higher levels of testosterone and women having higher levels of estrogen. Men and women tend to have different personalities, according to the big five personality traits (3). These differences are not only cross-cultural, but they become starker the more liberated from the home women become. Specifically, women tend to score higher in neuroticism, in openness to emotions, and in agreeableness. Men tend to score higher in assertiveness and openness to ideas. Men and women also differ in their general interests, with men showing more interest in things and with women showing more interest in people (4). Men and women differ in their preferences towards STEM fields (5). The data suggest that, across cultures, women score just as well or better than men, on tests of ability. However, across cultures, women become less represented in STEM the more liberated they become. This suggests that although men and women have the same capability, when it comes to STEM, they seem to have different interests, which is consistent with the last fact. Men and women differ in their mate preference across cultures (6). Men prefer women that they find sexually attractive (read: fertile), while women prefer men that they find to have earning potential, are dependable, funny, and kind. Other factors come into play as well when selecting mates, but these factors are among the cross-cultural findings that we have. There are also universal/cross-cultural differences in gender roles (7). In the vast majority of societies, men have been the primary occupants of the public and political realms. Men have always been more violent, aggressive, and prone to theft. Women, in contrast, have always been the primary caregivers of children. And even still, many of the old gender norms still exist to some degree, even today. Even when women leave the home and go out into the world, they disproportionately choose degrees that involve care or interactions with children (8). Speaking more generally to human behavior, we have evidence to suggest that variance in genetics has some explanatory power with regard to the phenotypic variance in many traits (9). These are well-established facts, making up the first law of behavioral genetics.
Finally, evolutionary predictions cannot be ignored. We know that human beings have been shaped, body and mind, by the forces of natural and sexual selection. Our bodies are teleonomically designed by selection to fulfill the function of reproduction. This reality applies to men as well as women. Men’s bodies and behavior were teleonomically designed for the purpose of producing and disseminating sperm. Women’s bodies and behavior were teleonomically designed for the purpose of producing eggs, selecting sperm, and bearing children. The evolutionary model predicts precisely the traditional gender roles that we can observe, stating that both physically and behaviorally, men and women evolved to fulfill their function in reproduction.
There are many points that could be taken away from this, but the overall point is that these facts should call into question the assumption that the feminist model of gender makes, which is that the sexes are equal by default. Based on no evidence, the sexes can be considered equal, until evidence suggests otherwise. But why should this assumption be made? If any assumptions are to be made, then it should be that sex differences are partly genetic until evidence suggests otherwise.
Selecting the Best Model
It is important to note that when you want to arrive at the truth of the matter, you need to compare the different potential models and select the best one based on its parsimonious explanatory power and its ability to predict future data. The point to take here is that you cannot nitpick at one side of the debate and pretend like that entails the validity of the opposing model. Neither model is perfect, so which one is more accurate?
I believe my model of gender construction is better than the feminist model because of the critiques I mentioned in this post—the assumed false dichotomy, the assumption that ideas can drive construction, and the assumption that social construction happens in a vacuum—but also because of the further explanatory power my model possesses over the feminist model. The feminist model provides no explanation for why gender roles changed over time in the modern West, especially when they did. Their model assumes that men consciously constructed gender so that women were excluded for thousands of years. Then, something magical happened! Men became enlightened and realized teh wimminz for what they were, thus allowing them to have a voice. But why did this happen? Why were women’s voices ignored for millennia, only to have a major turn around in the last century? Why not earlier? Why did it happen at all?
In contrast, my model does provide an explanation for why this change happened and also why it happened when it did. The change had to do with a modification of two of the underlying realities. First, when the West came upon the industrial revolution, this opened up the job markets to include increasingly many jobs to the market beyond the simple hard physical labor that used to dominate the market. Second, when the first reliable forms of birth control hit the market this severed sex from reproduction and thus freed women from the naturally imposed parental responsibilities tied to sex. The combination of these two shifts struck down two of the underlying realities that my model proposes. With these constraints gone, the liberation of women from the home life became inevitable. Of course, the social and cultural norms would not change instantly, and some people would be motivated to push back against this change, but since these norms merely reinforce the differences rather than drive them, they were inevitably going to change to some degree.
Finally, the fact that certain gender differences in behavior still exist, like in occupation choice, even in spite of major changes over the past century, is partly explained by genetic differences between the sexes.
There is a major impasse between the feminist model and my model that is highlighted here. The feminist model suggests that male influence on the construction of gender ideas is what drives the social construction process. My model suggests that a combination of realities—that of limited job markets in pre-industrial societies, lack of birth control, and genetic differences between the sexes—drive the social construction process. The feminist model emphasizes collective human agency, where we have the capacity to control how we live together (or only men have had that capacity until recently). My model emphasizes the lack of collective human agency. It assumes that genetics and the natural environment inform and constrain our behaviors. Indeed, you could say that the feminist model presupposes free will, while mine presupposes determinism. (Given that human beings are immanent to the natural world, being made of the natural elements like carbon, assuming that we are free from the deterministic laws of nature is dubious.)
I am also prepared to make predictions based on my model. I predict that as genetic research continues to advance, we will find evidence for behavioral differences with respect to specific genes. I also predict that unless there exists a significant amount of social engineering—such as quotas—women’s representation in positions of power, or in politics, will be less than that of men’s, as a rule across cultures. So it goes with women’s representation in the home. These predictions can and should be made more precise; I just want to get across the general idea.
The idea that gender is socially constructed implies certain falsehoods about human behavior. Namely, this idea implies that behavior is either natural or conventional, that behavior is idea driven, that men largely control the discourse of society, and that human behavior is minimally influenced by genetics or the natural environment. My model builds off of these critiques, providing an alternative explanation for why gender was constructed the way it was. But it is worth asking, am I still claiming that gender is socially constructed? It is true that all social and cultural norms are constructed, in some sense; they necessarily generalize. The issue rests with the question of why social and cultural norms are constructed the way they are and to what degree they are constructed. I propose that genetic and natural environmental influences on behavior provide a basis for this. The process of social construction is then relegated to a mere reinforcement of these inclined behaviors through normalization, where a majority consensus is generalized out and enforced accordingly. The social construction process is subordinate to genetics and the natural environment, in other words.
Either way, the intention of this post was to provide some kind of reconciliation between social constructivism and biological realism.
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(1) Social Constructs: https://www.amazon.com/Social-Construction-What-Ian-Hacking/dp/0674004124
(3) Personality: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-008-9380-7
(4) Things vs. People: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19883140
(6) Mate preference: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022022190211001
(7) Human Universals: https://condor.depaul.edu/mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm
(9) First Law: http://people.virginia.edu/~ent3c/papers2/three_laws.pdf