A social construct is a concept or category that has socially and culturally mediated meaning. In other words, social constructs are concepts that generate their meaning through social and cultural worldviews.
An illustrative example of this is the fact that the idealized notion of beauty has changed over time. In 17th Century France, for example, plump women were considered to be exceptionally beautiful. Today, being thin is considered beautiful. Therefore, ‘beauty’ isn’t objective, but socially constructed in a specific time period.
Examples of social constructs include race, gender, nationality, childhood, madness, age, intelligence, and beauty.
The idea emerges from postmodern and poststructural theories in cultural studies and sociology. It highlights how concepts like race, gender roles, and beauty are not natural or normal.
Examples of Social Constructs
While biological race, categorized by factors such as skin pigmentation and other biological features, may be considered biological fact, the cultural associations we ascribe to race make it a social construct.
For example, people of color may find that they are more heavily scrutinized in retail stores by security guards based on their skin color. In this instance, socially constructed ideas about race (where non-white people stand-out as different, observable, and untrustworthy) influence people’s lived experiences of being a racialized individual.
Here, race is considered a social construct because being a person of color isn’t just a biological fact. It’s associated with a range of social and cultural prejudices that dictate how an African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and so on, is treated by society.
This mistreatment of people of color isn’t based on fact. It’s based on a socially constructed notion of race. In a parallel universe, stereotypes and prejudices about people of color may not exist, and therefore the experience of being African-American, Asian-American, Native American, and so on, could be entirely different.
In my mother’s generation (she’s in her late 60s), she said she had three options when she graduated high school: to become a nurse, teacher, or receptionist. Society’s idea of women back in the 1960s in Australia restricted her agency.
Today, women are heads of nations and large companies and there is a concerted social push to achieve gender equality.
These changes in the past decade show how much the socially constructed concept of gender has changed. Society used to construct the ‘good’ woman ideal as someone who worked until she had children. Conservative gender socialization taught women that they belong in the domestic sphere. Today, women are generally seen as equals in the workplace and constructed as more powerful and participatory members of society.
Go Deeper: A List of Gender Stereotypes
You would think that childhood is a perfectly normal and objective concept. But scholar Philip Aries wrote a ground-breaking study showing how even socially constructed notions of childhood have changed over time.
Aries revealed how, in England, childhood used to be perceived to end at around the age of 12! After that age, children would go to work, dress like adults, associate with adults, and even smoke! Marriages occurred at younger ages, too.
Here, we can see how our idea of childhood has changed. Today, a person who is 15 may be seen as a child, whereas 200 years ago, they would have been seen as an adult! The key difference here is how society has ‘constructed’ the very idea of childhood.
So, what changed?
According to Aries, the industrial revolution led to improved standards of living. Families no longer needed to send their children to work immediately. They could send their kids to school for longer and protect them from adult life until an older age. As a result, the social construction of childhood also changed. Childhood came to be seen as something more prolonged, precious, and innocent!
Go Deeper: The Social Construction of Childhood
Nationality is a social construct that is one of the easiest ones to conceptualize. What it means to be American, Canadian, Australian, or French, changes from generation to generation. Our idea of the ideal ‘Canadian’ will change as time passes.
But let’s take the example of Australians because that’s the one I know the most about!
Back in the 1910s, Australians saw themselves as an offshoot of the British empire. They saw the ideal Australian as being a white person of British origin (in fact, the White Australia Policy restricted non-white migration up until the 1960s).
What’s worse – it wasn’t until the 1960s that Aboriginal people started to be seen as Australians and counted in the Australian census!
Today, we might visualize Australians as completely different people. We see it as one of the most successful multicultural nations in the world. It’s also no longer as closely associated with Britain as it has generated its own identity and mythologies (based, largely, on the ANZAC and Gallipoli myths in WWI and WWII).
Go Deeper: The Different Types of Nationalism
One of the most influential theorists of social constructs is French Philosopher Michel Foucault. In his thesis Madness and Civilization, Foucault explored how our ideas of sanity and madness are culturally constructed.
Madness, sanity, and inclusion, according to Foucault, are heavily reliant on social, cultural, and prevailing scientific consensus. People would be sent to asylums despite the fact they could live perfectly normal lives. Society had just decided that some people were ‘mad’ and others were sane.
Take, for example, homosexuality. Up until the 1990s, it was seen as a medical condition! Today, it’s generally perceived as being a perfectly normal thing.
Just like childhood, all ages of life are social constructions. For example, different societies may construct the idea of being an elderly person very differently.
Elderly people are often seen as wise people who we need to cherish and protect. But in a parallel universe, they might be seen as useless because they’re frail and pushed to the outskirts of society.
Similarly, millennials chose to delay middle adulthood much longer than many other generations. They married later, lived with their parents longer, and delayed responsibility. This means that what it means to be a 30-year-old today is significantly different to what it meant to be a 30-year-old 200 years ago.
200 years ago, a 30 year old might have had a few teenagers and a full-time job. If you didn’t, you might have been considered to be a failure! Today, it’s not uncommon or unexpected for 30-year-olds to still be single, perhaps traveling, and still unsure of what career they want to follow!
What it means to be intelligent depends largely on who you associate with. In fact, today we look at different types of intelligence.
In a blue-collar job, having practical intelligence might be seen as the idealized intelligence. If you put me, an academically-minded person, into a group of carpenters, they would think I was a simpleton! They would tell me to grab a certain tool and I’d stare at them like a deer in headlights.
But put me in a university context and suddenly my academic intelligence becomes valuable. Suddenly, I’m the intelligent person in the room!
Here, we can see that intelligence is a social construct. Whether you’re intelligent or not depends very much on the people you’re around and what skills and abilities are valued.
Our ideas about beauty have also changed over time. In 16th Century France, plump women were considered beautiful and feminine men (by today’s standard) were idealized.
We can look at paintings of idealized women stored in the Louvre to see that they were somewhat plump compared to today’s women on the catwalk! Plump women were considered beautiful because they were seen as wealthy. They had enough money to eat ample food!
Similarly, we look at the old French kings with their wigs, high heels, and white makeup to see that their idealized notions of masculinity were very different from the ideals today.
Beauty, therefore, is not an objective idea. Different societies construct idealized beauty in different ways.
The social construct of ‘coolness’ changes from generation to generation. This makes the idea of cool a great illustrative example of how social categories are constructed rather than based in objectivity.
A cool person from the 1950s is probably a little dorky today. They would say phrases like “radical!” that, in front of kids at school these days, would be laughed at!
Coolness is often socially constructed through media. Television, movies, and influencers help shape social ideas about what is in fashion and idealized, as well as what is out of fashion or uncool.
In fact, there is a very large body of literature on how media socially constructs reality. This, in recent years, has led to a more conscious effort on behalf of the media to represent a wider range of social identities to include as many different types of people as possible into the social norm.
Critical theorists often lament the fact that our ideas of crime tend to disadvantage working-class people and privilege white-collar criminals.
For example, blue-collar crimes are often harshly punished by courts. This leads many working-class people ending up in incarceration while white-collar criminals get away with crimes like embezzlement without much punishment at all, despite the fact that they have done much more harm to society!
This is, in large part, because media and the dominant social class have decided to construct the deviant actions of the working-class as far worse than those of the dominant class.
If you want a simpler example, simply look at the laws on the books in different countries. In one country, an action might be constructed as criminal, while in another country, it’s perfectly normal! Of course, this is because different cultures have socially constructed things differently!
11. Social Class
Social class is considered a social construct not because there is a clear difference between wealthy and poor people in society. It’s a social construct because we ascribe a range of other identity factors around class status.
For example, we can see in a range of different cultures throughout history how social class has been socially constructed in different ways. Take, for example, Cuba, where the communist regime frowns upon entrepreneurs and wealthy people. Right next door, in the USA, entrepreneurs are lauded as admirable people.
The difference here is in how class is socially constructed.
Another great example is in the Edo feudal system in Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1867), Samurai were paid less than the average citizen and were not allowed to own land. In today’s world, they’d be seen as lower-class! But back then, due to their swordsmanship, the Samurai were seen as high-class and respected members of society.
12. The ‘Good’ Teacher
Even professions and occupations can be seen as socially constructed. Take the example of the teacher. The idea of the ideal teacher is socially constructed in different ways in different societies and time periods.
The ideal teacher in, say, 1910 England, is very different from the ideal teacher today. Back then, they were strict. They walked up and down aisles with canes, slapping students’ hands for getting questions wrong.
And yet, these strict and even cruel teachers were seen as ‘good’ teachers because that was the norm back then.
Today, we construct the idealized teacher identity in a very different way. The good teacher today is one who is responsive to students’ emotional needs, encourages conversation about topics, and tries to differentiate their teaching for every student’s individual needs.
Since the 1980s, the social model of disability has demonstrated how people with disabilities have historically been socially constructed in damaging ways. This model has dramatically changed how society constructs disability in recent decades.
For example, a person with an intellectual disability has historically been socially constructed as incapable of basic tasks, quarantined from society, and forced to live a quiet life on the outskirts of society.
But since the 1980s, society has increasingly attempted to include children with intellectual disabilities into mainstream classrooms. Society recognizes that they have the right to be equal participants in society, educated among their peers, and encouraged to get jobs in fields in which they are capable.
Here, we see two competing social constructs. The first is that of the ‘incompetent’ disabled person who is forced to live a lonely life. The second is that of the ‘agentic’ disabled person whose right to be seen as a normal participant in society is respected.
It’s the same disability, but socially constructed in completely different ways in the social imaginary.
14. Space, Place, and Landscapes
French philosopher Henri Lefebvre explored how even space is a social construct. This doesn’t mean that it’s a figment of our imagination. But, it does mean that the meanings we ascribe to space are socially constructed.
Take, for example, a public park. While we can all agree that it has grass, trees, and a playground in it, our cultural relationship with the space is going to change dramatically depending on the context.
I have a personal example of this. Once, I was on a video chat with a friend. I was in a park down the street from my house in Vancouver, Canada. He was calling from Detroit. He noticed that the sun had set and night was creeping in. “You had better get home,” he said, “before you get hurt.”
He and I had constructed the park in very different ways.
To me, the park was a peaceful family place. Never would I feel unsafe or afraid. But for him, coming from a more dangerous city, the park was constructed as a dangerous place to be feared and avoided.
Same park, completely different social constructs.
Our idea of what a good leader might be is also a social construct. One society might look to an individual with great charisma and claim they are what a good leader truly is. Another society might look to a democratic leadership style as the ideal.
Here again, we might be able to agree upon some basic definitions of leadership, but when it comes to ascribing deeper cultural meaning to the term, we can see how it becomes socially constructed. The ideal of a good leader will change depending on your time, culture, place, and other contextual factors.
Cultural theorist Sara Ahmed explored how even the concept of happiness is socially constructed.
Ahmed shows how being happy is defined in different ways by different cultures. When we look at 1950s women’s magazines, women’s happiness was regularly constructed as involving raising children, cooking dinner for the husband, and leaning heavily into traditional gender roles.
Today, dominant cultural constructs of women’s happiness have diversified and changed. But we can still see that society has decided to construct it in other ways now.
For example, happiness is often linked in television advertisements to having a good career, your own house, and a good car. Here, happiness is tied to economic rationalism. It’s not about having deep relationships with family or a strong sense of spirituality and community. Late capitalism may have replaced its ideas of gender-based happiness with something else, but that other thing is a decidedly capitalist form of happiness.
Other Concepts that are Socially Constructed
|Travel and Tourism||Work-Life Balance||Satisfaction|
|Art (e.g. Graffiti, Mona Lisa)||Citizenship||Motherhood|
Social Constructionism vs Cultural Relativism
My students often ask me if social constructionism is simply another name for cultural relativism.
When we study social constructs, we explore how people interpret reality. It’s not to say that reality doesn’t exist (there are, of course, people with different genders or skin pigmentation). Rather, it is the exploration of how our observations construct social categories.
Cultural relativism makes a judgment that all cultures are equal. It often leads to moral relativism, which is the suggestion that there is no objective morality in society. The worry here is that there will be a slippery slope towards accepting all forms of moral behaviors.
The study of social constructs doesn’t attempt to make judgments about the morality of different cultures. Rather, it simply explores how different cultures come to their conclusions about ideas and people.
These conclusions can include and marginalize people who don’t fit the socially constructed norm.
Social constructionism is a very misunderstood concept. Many people dismiss it as a way of saying “nothing is real” or “all things are relative”. This is a misreading of the term. Rather, cultural theorists use the ideas of social constructionism to critique how people’s understandings of things (categories, people, etc.) are always mediated by culture. This mediation and cultural meaning-making process has serious effects: it acts to include some people as “idealized” members of society while excluding others or policing how they can construct their identity.
Read Next: Social Norms
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]