To bring about change in the world you have to do more than just think about it.
My behavior in class. How I talk to a teacher. How I talk to a woman. How I expect others to treat me. All these things are affected by ideals and norms which our society lives by; these things are, at least partially, a response to the categories in which society places me and those with whom I interact. Ideologies, religions, hierarchy, government and language, all these are meaningless without a social context. The existence of all these things is dependent on society. This is what it means for a thing to be socially constructed, that it is dependent upon a society for its current form of existence. What is the nature of things that are socially constructed? In the social context in which I exist these are fundamental questions. I have given myself a number of personal titles, anarchist, anti-racist and feminist, chosen from those available, which put me on a path which requires me asking what is innate of a person, persons or society and what is something which can be changed to create a society which includes the least possible amount of suffering and the most possible amount of fulfillment for every person.
Given this it is vital for me to understand what social constructions are both thick and changeable. Thick meaning that there is a wide disconnect between what society thinks is innate to a person and what is actually a part of a role expected of that person. One clear example of this is the roles which females are expected to play in our society. If we define a female as someone who possesses a certain set of organs, breasts, a vagina, ovaries and others, then we see that this role is minor; they only exist insofar as they possess these organs. However, female are not simply their physiological make-up, for in our society there are gender role that we ascribe to them that they must also live up to so as to been seen as women. This is true of males as well as females. I, as a male, have certain organs which make me a male. What, then, does it mean for something to be socially constructed?
In her paper “Ontology and Social Construction”[pdf] Haslanger posits a number of possible conceptions of social construction. The first type is generic social construction which she defines as “something is a social construction in the generic sense just in case it is an intended or unintended product of a social practice.” This is by far the broadest category of social constructions, to the point that it is trivial in the sense that it can help us to describe the world only in a limited sense. Yes, chess and houses are social constructions, but to say they are means that they have been created by a society. It is the more abstract of social constructions which interests me. But those things also fit in this category; gender, politics, class and others which are dependent on the existence of society for not only their creation but also their existence. To this end Haslanger breaks down social constructions in two sub groups causal construction and constitutive construction.
Causal construction is defined as: “Something is causally constructed iff social factors play a causal role in bringing it into existence or, to some substantial extent, in its being the way it is.” This type of social construction is the house or the car or even the computer on which I am writing this paper. They exist as a result of their being a society to create them but once they exist they exist independently. This, again, is a fairly limited concept in terms of utility. What use does saying that a house is socially created, it is obvious. Constitutive construction is defined by Haslanger as “Something is constitutively constructed iff in defining it we must make reference to social factors.” This is the category which includes the more abstract constructions. It includes roles that we take on such as man, woman, student, Democrat and even such roles as brother or sister. If we take the role of brother as an example we see that while one can narrowly define a brother as being a male born of the same parents as another, which is more of a causal construction, in our society it takes on other aspects. There are certain actions which are expected of a brother. Familial love for one. Because we expect these actions of a brother the role is more than just causally constructed.
Now we arrive at a more complicated form of social construction, discursive construction. Haslanger defines discursive construction thusly: “Something is discursively constructed just in case it is the way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self attributed) to it.”
We see then that while the role of a brother is constitutively constructed, an actual brother is discursively constructed. I have a sister and am thus a brother, and because this is attributed to me I take different actions than I otherwise would. I call people I would not otherwise, I buy presents I would not otherwise. I also attribute to myself or have been attributed other roles which make me discursively constructed: anarchist, student, man and white. Each of these roles is a constitutive construction, they exist in how they interact within society, but I will look at the role of my being a man. In acting as a man I have certain behavior and certain dress which is expected of me by society but the reason these behaviors are expected of me is not completely clear. Gender and sex are separate, sex being a definition by physiological make-up and gender being a set of expected actions and dress imposed by society, a pragmatic construction. Haslanger defines a pragmatic construction as: “A classificatory apparatus (be it a full blown classification scheme or just conceptual distinction or descriptive term) is socially constructed just in case its use is determined, at least in part, by social factors.” Masculinity and femininity are socially constructed in a way similar to Haslanger's hypothetical “cool dudes” because there is no person whom prior to socialization fits these molds, in fact very few fit the molds of masculinity and femininity even after socialization. The social determining of gender is a binary which is a discursive and pragmatic social construct. If gender were not socially constructed then it would need not be separate from sex, one could say that someone was either male or female and not need to say that they are man or woman.
Attributions of masculinity have an effect on how individuals interact. Men are discursively constructed. But on the analysis I've been proposing, this happens as a result of a false and importantly misleading representation of the facts. I am suggesting that in contexts where "masculinity" functions as a serious form of evaluation, there is general complicity in the belief that masculine behavior is a result of a character trait (the person being a man) that is the real basis for the evaluation. They want their masculinity, so to speak, to "shine through" in their behavior, dress, etc., so that they will win approval by society; and society acknowledges a distinction between being a man and just acting like a man. Masculine things (objects, dress, actions) are the things men approve of (or would approve of). To debunk the belief that there is a special quality of "masculinity" that warrants the designation of "man," we show that there is no such property as "masculinity" (so understood) and, in fact, that the application of the term "man" is determined wholly by the interests and concerns of society.
Above I've taken a quote from Sally Haslanger and replaced the reference to coolness and cool with manliness and man. We can see that when so altered, the paragraph still makes sense, that gender is a pragmatic social construction. To be a so called “real man” I must act in a certain way, dress in a certain way and possess, or not possess, the correct objects. I, even as a male, clearly am not innately a real man if I must do all of these thing besides being male to be a real man. I must interact with others in a certain way, I must have or not have certain emotion and I must disdain all thing feminine in terms of actions and dress. The inverse is, of course, also true; one who wishes to be a woman need not look to their genitals to tell them what to do, for femininity is just as much a pragmatic social construct as masculinity.
Clearly there is an interaction between gender and sex, to claim otherwise would be absurd; but the connection is somewhat weaker than popular opinion would have it. In fact, the connection is popular opinion, specifically the popular opinion that those with a certain sex should be a certain gender. What we find now is that the actions we expect of a given gender has changed, as has happened before, but the ideals of the genders has changed much less than it appears given that the change in behavior is is often radical. More recently we see the rise of new conceptions of manliness, that a real man is not afraid to show emotion, that a real man can wear pink or some other form of womens clothing; and while this is not especially wide spread, except perhaps here in San Francisco, it is an example of changes which a pragmatic construct can go through. We do however note that most of these changes are expressed in such a way that it retains the core values of masculinity. “A real man is not afraid to cry.” for example does not say that it is manly to cry, but that a real man is so very brave that he can do things which society has deemed unmanly.
These attempts to change what it means to be a man have other flaws as well. The most glaring of these is the failure to recognize that gender is a tool used in society for the oppression of women and other non-male people. Because gender is a pragmatic which according to society should always be attached to the corresponding sex, then it become a tool for oppression, the oppression of non-males in our society, but it could certain be used to oppress different groups were sex roles changed around. What society should be asking is not what it means to be a man or a woman, but exactly how much our biological sex affects our behavior.