PANISH: Misconstruction of social constructionism must end


Opinions Column: Leaving the Left

Social constructionism has been one of the hottest topics in academia for several decades, as well as the topic that academia is best known for in the outside world. It is one of those rare concepts that has successfully escaped the academic journal and the lecture hall and found its way into everyday speech. Its ubiquity has even triggered a backlash from academics such as Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker and their considerable social media followings that is growing in popularity daily. Yet papers, essays and editorials continue to abound at Rutgers and across the country that use the language of social construction to argue their points. So why has social constructionism, and not some other academic concept, seen its popularity skyrocket in recent years?

I think the answer is that social constructionism, which holds that human behavior is largely determined by social interactions, can be selectively applied to make almost any utopia appear not only natural, but preferable and achievable. It is easy to find people using the phrase “socially constructed” to describe things that they do not like — gender roles, racial differentiation, traditional authority, privilege, etc. — because it carries with it the assumption that these things can be eliminated by changing how people interact. You would never hear somebody speak admiringly of how consent is a social construct, even though it is no more innate than gender roles, because “socially constructed” is a moniker reserved for things that we want to go away and whose going-away we want to believe is natural and correct.

Culture is an especially confusing and confused aspect of social constructionist arguments. The idea that race is socially constructed, for instance, though rooted in the admirable desire to get rid of race as a social category and thus solve the ancient problem of racial antagonism once and for all, would ultimately have us reject race-based culture altogether. This, of course, would mean shutting down campus cultural centers all over the United States on the grounds that they actively reproduce racial and cultural categories that students are encouraged to sort themselves into. Yet it is precisely the people who claim that race is socially constructed who also tend to argue that cultural centers are necessary for minority students to participate in, learn about and take pride in their racial background. Left wing proponents of social constructionism thus seem to want to have their cake and eat it too, by both framing race as a meaningless social category and simultaneously celebrating the racial identity of groups that they consider oppressed. A consistent critique of race would force them to choose one or the other.

Gender is by far the most talked about aspect of social constructionist theory. As opposed to race, where we know that the role played by biology is essentially limited to outward appearance, there is a raging debate over whether gender (one’s sexual identity and corresponding behavior) is given or created. In this case, it simply is not true that biological sex has no meaningful impact on human behavior. On average, women have higher social and verbal intelligence than men, whereas men have higher spatial and mathematical intelligence, and these differences persist across cultures. The phrase “on average” is key because by no means do these descriptions hold true for all men and all women. But the fact that there is an inverse relationship between measures of overall gender equality and rates of women in STEM fields demonstrates that when people are allowed to sort themselves according to their desires and proclivities instead of society’s expectations, gendered inequalities may actually increase. 

It is also interesting to note that one of the main arguments made in favor of less restrictive guidelines around gender reassignment surgery is that one’s gender is innate and beyond the reach of attempts by society to inculcate behavior that aligns with one’s physical sex. This argument for the existence of an innate, biological gender, though coming from the forefront of the trans rights movement, is strangely at odds with the prevailing view in academia, which holds that one’s behavior has nothing to do with one’s sex. Yet, just as on the issue of race, social constructionism is immediately ditched when it threatens to undermine its proponents’ social goals.

Given the inconsistent and contradictory ways in which social constructionism is often applied, it would serve its proponents well to use it more carefully. Because one can just as easily delegitimize any behavior by calling attention to the role that social interactions play in creating it (and there are virtually no human behaviors that are not both biologically and socially constructed) critics of things like gender roles and racial differentiations should be prepared to face the implications of their suggestions that socially constructed things can and should be done away with. They might be surprised by what ends up on the chopping block.

Adam Panish is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in political science and  history. His column, "Leaving the  Left," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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