Why do we harp on ad nauseam about things being ‘socially constructed’? Why is ‘social construction’ so essential to gender and sexuality studies? The answer to these two questions lies in the activist and progressive effects that constructivist thinking can produce. Asserting that something is socially constructed means that it is changeable. It is created out of human interaction and can eventually be undone. This is opposed to an essentialist world view, which does not question the origins of social phenomena, but takes them as bio-psychological givens. Essentialist formulas for change usually occur within established power structures, while social constructivists perceive those power structures as open to change.

For instance, some scholars have lauded the modern Muslim practice of veiling as feminist because it can free women from the scopophilic gaze of men. By ‘covering themselves up’ women will not allow men to judge them based solely on restrictive beauty standards. They will not have to visually prostitute their bodies in order to get jobs, relationships or marriages. This policy is the result of an essentialist view of men and masculinity. Men are taken ‘as they are’ (superficial scopophiles) and women must adjust to that in order to make life better for themselves.

Social constructivists would resist this kind of framing of gender. Men may judge women based on standards of ‘physical beauty’, but there is nothing necessarily permanent about this. Men are collectively ‘like that’ because society makes them that way. It encourages them to behave in ways that are degrading to women. Popular culture, parents, the media and schools all promote a ‘beauty’-based valorization of women; boys are taught that being a ‘real man’ implies this kind of attitude to the so-called ‘opposite’ sex. Therefore, under a social constructivist framework, patriarchal behaviors are the product of identifiable ‘social doings’ that we can work towards changing. Instead of ‘covering up’ women as a response to male scopophilia, we can change masculinity by altering the structures of socialization that produce it. The media does not have to promote degrading judgments of women, parents can teach their kids to not judge people based on their gender, and schools can encourage gender equality. Under a constructivist framework, there is no reason for thinking that patriarchal social phenomena are permanent: we can all work collectively towards changing them. It is no wonder, therefore, that feminists and other gender progressives depend so much on social constructivist thought. It is generally an optimistic worldview that winks at the possibility of change in society.

But is there such a thing as social constructivist thought? Does this concept not make sense only when defined against essentialism? This is true, to an extent. There are many diverse theories that deal with ‘constructed-ness’ and not all of them are necessarily in fundamental agreement with each another. One of the most basic fault lines within social constructivism is between ‘symbolic interactionism’ and poststructuralism. The former is considered more ‘mainstream’ and generally follows the schema outlined above. The latter is a more pessimistic, and at times, anti-progressive theory that has come up against some resistance in modern academia.

Both symbolic interactionists and poststructuralists conceive of identities as ‘socially constructed’, but differ on the desirability of ‘stable’ identity constructions. Poststructuralists deny the existence of a knowledgeable human nature that precedes socialization and view rigid identity performances as reflective of a lack of stable identity. People stick doggedly to fixed identities because they are afraid of the ‘instability and uncertainty inside’. In turn, the need to maintain a stable identity causes violence towards others because the only way that it can be maintained is through an ‘othering’ process that discredits and despises anything that which the desired identity is not. For example, fixed heterosexuality is inevitably violent because it requires a level of disgust at all other sexual identity options as a way of maintaining itself. Thus, poststructuralists favor embracing the fluidity and ambiguity of identity as the only way that social change can be achieved. In order for patriarchy to ‘go away’ both men and women are going to have to take their identities a lot less seriously. Symbolic interactionists, on the other hand, find nothing wrong with stable identities as long as they are better identities. Masculinity does not have to be destabilized in order to stop being aggressive. Rather, it is possible to change the identity for the better (expunging homophobia & misogyny from it), while maintaining its fixity.

***For More Information***
For a basic introduction to a symbolic interactionist framing of gender, have a look at Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s “Doing Gender” from the first issue of Gender and Society (1987). Since this article may be hard to find on the Internet, you can use this summary to get at their argument. West and Zimmerman examine gender from the perspective of individuals reacting to social expectations, but if you are looking for a more institutionalist perspective, check out Judith Lorber’s “Night to His Day”.

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