The term ‘cultural construct’ is used to explain how cultures ascribe meaning to ideas and concepts (Palmer & Ponsonby, 2002).
For example, the traditional ideas that men are leaders and women are passive come from cultural beliefs about gender norms. In other words, gender is culturally constructed.
John Storey (2018) provdes what I consider to be one of the best explanations of cultural construction when exploring the idea that the moon (yes, even the moon!) is culturally constructed:
“To describe the moon as a cultural construct might sound slightly ridiculous, Surely it is a natural satellite in synchronous roation with the earth? Yes, it is, but from the beginning of human history people have looked up at the moon and inscribed meaning on it and in this way it has also become a cultural object, represented in, for example, songs, poety, stories, paintings, mythologies” (Storey, 2018, p. 65).
Saying that a concept is a cultural construct does not mean that it does not actually exist. Rather, it means recognizing how the concept’s meaning differs across cultures and societies (Palmer & Ponsonby, 2002).
This is because social concepts often go through a process of cultural construction. Through this process, different meanings and values are attributed to social trends, attitudes, and behaviors (Palmer & Ponsonby, 2002).
While in Western secularism, the moon is seen as simply an orb in the sky, if we turn to Astrological traditions in India, we see that the moon’s phases can reveal insights about people’s personalities!
Cultural Construction Definition
Cultural construction is the formation of our definitions of social concepts based on our cultures rather than objective realities.
These concepts can be as fundamental as nationality, health, race as a social construct, or gender, which we often take for granted. A concept which is the subject of the process of cultural construction is called a cultural construct.
When a concept is culturally constructed, its definition is shaped by the culture surrounding it, instead of objective and physical truths. Therefore, their definitions can change across cultures.
For example, the North American understanding of being healthy is not the same as the definition of healthy in Chinese or Turkish cultures (Gaines, 1992).
Culture does not only refer to ethnic or national values and traditions, but also historical and social surroundings. Therefore, we have to distinguish between ethnic, national, historical, socioeconomic, and generational types of cultural constructs.
For example, the culture of Victorian era England was different from 21st century England. The cultural construct of gender changed across these historical cultures within the same country—from an idea of women being stay-at-home mothers to the idea that women can be prime ministers.
Another example is the cultural construction of communication across different generations. While older generations communicated through traditional ways such as writing letters, for Generation Z, communication often refers to texting over social media apps.
- Eye contact: in most of the European cultures sustaining eye contact during communication is associated with positive values such as honesty and trust. However in other cases, such as some East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, avoiding direct eye contact can be a sign of respect and humility.
- Gender roles: Masculine and feminine gender roles can often vary based on the cultural context. For example, in Western cultures heterosexual masculinity is associated with less public displays of physical affection with other men. In contrast, hugs or cheek kisses between platonic male friends is a normalized and acceptable part of masculinity in some Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures (Hawkins, 2018).
- Racial Categories: Racial classifications such as white, brown, and black are not used the same way in all cultures. Instead, regional and more specific ethnic categories (such as Arab, Armenian, or Irish) dominate the social and political discourse in many parts of the world.
- Addressing Others: Forms of addressing others, and the meanings attributed to these forms (such as professionality and respect) are culturally constructed. For example, while referring to a university professor with their first name is acceptable in Canada, this is culturally seen as disrespectful behaviour in Japan.
- Sense of Fashion: Our perceptions of fashion and dressing styles are culturally constructed. A clothes combination that is seen as fashionable and cool in one culture can be seen as old-fashioned or even inappropriate in another one.
- Agreements and Contracts: Regardless of legal regulations, not all cultures perceive agreement and contracts in the same way. For example, while in many Western cultures it would be expected to sign and apply a formal contract when renting a house, in some cultures most of the transactions are based on verbal agreement and mutual trust.
- Food and Eating: The meanings that we attribute to different types of food vary across national, ethnic, social, and historical cultures (In sociology, we call the cultural practices related to food ‘foodways‘). Similarly, different cultures view eating ceremonies and rituals in different ways. For example, eating alone is seen as unpleasant in some cultures while it is completely normalized in some others.
- Death and grief: Despite being universal experiences, different cultures have different understandings of death and grief. For example, in some cultures, death is seen as the completion of one phase in a reincarnation circle, in contrast with an absolute end. Ways of grieving also vary heavily across different historical and ethnic cultures.
- Leadership: Different cultures view political and social leaders in different ways. In cultures where the leadership cultures are stronger, political leaders have a higher social standing and they are more respected. In other cultures, leaders are seen as equal citizens despite their political and social positions.
- Aging: Alongside its biological and physical aspects, aging is also culturally constructed. Perception of a positive aging experience and attitudes towards older people greatly vary across cultures. For example, while in some cultures expecting older people to work is seen as disrespectful to them, in some other cultures it is the complete opposite.
- Marriage: In some cultures, marriage has religious meaning and is something sacred. For some people, it’s a bond of love, while historically, it was used to consolidate power or broker peace between two warring groups. In secular Westernism, it’s increasingly simply a personal agreement between two people.
- Childhood: In Victorian England, childhood ended at around 12 years of age. After this, people would go off to work and earn a living and even get married. Today, childhood extends to age 18, and most modern cultures expend a lot of energy trying to preserve childhood innocence up until that age.
- Teachers: While we may have dictionary definitions of teachers, we also have culturally inscribed meaning connected to them. Many lament that in the past 30 years, teachers have lost a lot of respect from society and their relative wages have fallen, demonstrating how our cultural construct of the teaching profession has been changing for the worse.
- Happiness: In Western capitalism, happiness is often constructed as intrinsically connected to wealth, good looks, and materialism (we can thank advertising for that!). But many people challenge this dominant cultural construction of happiness, instead choosing to embrace the idea that happiness comes from community, love, family, and spirituality (Ahmed, 2010).
- Travel: Different cultures value travel differently. Some may consider it to be a rite of passage, while others see it as a waste of time.
Read Also: Cultural Variation Examples
Other Concepts that are Culturally Constructed
|Heroism||Success||Deviance (see: Cultural deviance theory)|
|Travel and Tourism||Work-Life Balance||Satisfaction|
|Art (e.g. Graffiti, Mona Lisa)||Citizenship||Motherhood|
Food, cooking, and eating ceremonies are integral parts to many cultures. Despite sharing these experiences, different cultures construct food and eating in different ways.
For example, while many societies share the notion of breakfast, the culturally acceptable ingredients of this meal deeply vary.
Another culturally constructed aspect of food is related to sharing food and socializing. For example, in Swedish culture it is completely normal to not serve any food to your guests, while for many other cultures this would be seen as unacceptable (Dharni, 2022).
In addition, specific meanings are attributed to foods related to cultural norms, values, ceremonies and rituals. For instance, in Islamic cultures, the dessert halva is associated with mourning (Gundem, 2015).
Death and grief are cultural constructs as their meanings differ for individuals and communities from different cultures (Larkin, 2014).
While death does imply an ending to human life in the Western cultures, some other cultures view it as a closure of only one phase of one’s existence, followed by rebirth (Novak, 2002).
Social reactions to death, including mourning and grief, are also cultural constructs as they vary across cultures (Larkin, 2014). For example, while in some cultures grieving is associated with fasting, in other cultures there are foods and desserts eaten specifically in funerals and memorial ceremonies (Rosenblatt, 2001).
For example, in contrast with the United States, close physical contact with other men is seen as an acceptable part of heterosexual masculinity in Turkey (Hawkins, 2018).
Cultural construction of gender also changed throughout history. For example, in Spartan and Persian cultures, which correspond to contemporary Greece and Iran, long hair was associated with masculinity (Wichmann, 2022).
4. Sense of Fashion
Despite its globalized aspects, the sense of fashion is a social and cultural construct. A dress that is seen as trendy and fashionable in one culture might be seen as old-fashioned and even inappropriate in another one.
Clothing and garments are historically associated with different cultures and meanings. For example, various African dresses were culturally constructed as ‘traditional’ after French and British colonialism in this continent. In contrast, European dresses and sense of fashion were constructed as modern and contemporary (Rovine, 2009).
Another example of the cultural construction of fashion is the use of head scarfs, which is often associated with Muslim women.
Despite being an inevitable physical process, aging is also a cultural construct (Counts & Counts, 1985).
In some cultures aging is constructed as a process which will lead to withdrawal from the workforce and social activities. In other cases, aging is associated with taking a more significant role in handling responsibilities such as childcare (Souralová, 2019).
The variety of cultural constructions of aging results in different social treatments of older individuals across cultures.
For example, some Middle Eastern cultures place a significant role in respecting older people, including prioritizing them in public transportation and service provision (Formosa & Kutsal, 2019).
Cultural constructionism refers to a social concept or theme which is defined according to cultures instead of objective realities. Although we often take them for granted, concepts as simple as race, health, gender, food and death are cultural constructs.
Cultural constructs vary not only across ethnic and national cultures, but also between different historical and socioeconomic settings. Social concepts go through different processes of cultural construction, based on these settings and surroundings.
Understanding cultural construction is important as it enables us to go beyond our cultural assumptions that we take for granted. It also improves our critical thinking skills by allowing us to acknowledge diversity of cultural beliefs and ways of life.
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