The social construction perspective says that what people “know” to be real is always a product of “human definition and collective agreement” (Foss, Domenico, and Foss 38).
Social construction is a phenomena in which people assign a meaning to some aspect of their reality. For example, Americans assigned specific qualities to being African-American in the 1800s and changed the definition during the 1960s and 1990s. The social construction of race will continue to change with time as society’s values of race change.
A social construction offers a frame in which to understand a topic. For example, a father may call his daughter ‘gifted’ which would cause him to view her outbursts as expressions of her creativity rather than as misbehavior (Foss, Domenico, and Foss 34).
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Utopian ” Herland, Ellador and Van compare the constructions of a divine figure in the two societies. When Ellador truly does not understand the purpose of a male, bearded divinity, Van begins to question the socially constructed image of God he had always known. Van reflects, “I was thinking over the pictures of God I had seen...as an old man in a flowing robe, flowing hair, flowing beard, and in the light of her perfectly frank and innocent questions this concept seemed rather unsatisfying” (96).
Foss, Domenico, and Foss describe gender as a social construction by examining four illustrations: arbitrary differences, cultural differences, categorical differences, and historical differences (40).
First, the Western gender system is completely arbitrary because it assigns personality characteristics based on the presence of specific genitalia. Cordelia Fine parodies the organization of a gender system organized around genitals by organizing it around left-handedness and right-handedness instead (Fine 209-10).
Second, we learn that gender is a social construction by studying other societies’ constructions. Foss, Domenico, and Foss elaborate, “Gender may appear to be a naturally occurring phenomenon, but it is not an objective biological reality. It is invented through particular interpretations and interactions that construct different conceptualizations of gender from one culture to another” (43-44).
Third, categorical differences of sexuality explains that the language we use and that is available to use to describe sexuality supports our constructions. Some gender scholars and biologists coin new terms to describe sexuality other than masculine and feminine (45-46).
Finally, we understand gender as a construction by studying how our definitions of gender have changed over time. This change can be specifically studied through the three waves of feminism in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the 1960s, and the 1990s.
Enacted Gender Constructions
Social constructions of gender are performed and perpetuated by all members of a society. The way one holds one’s tea, smiles at a friend, or converses with a superior are all gender-related acts. These collective actions are called performativity . Becoming conscious of such gender performances gives a person the agency to mindfully take advantage of or change the performance.
Reality is a specific understanding of one’s world. A gender reality is the way in which we understand our experiences with gender. When multiple people share the same understanding of their world, they enter a collective reality. Collective realities are realized through communication. Specific groups oftentimes share realities because they come from similar backgrounds, have similar outlooks on the world, and communicate frequently. (Foss, Domenico, and Foss 34).
Newcomers to a socially constructed reality often take the reality as fact because they did not see the construction happen. As Foss, Domenico, and Foss explain, “They did not create the institution through their communication, so they can easily forget that the objectivity and permanence they sense about the institution is a humanly produced, constructed reality” (36). Gender constructions are often essentialized because we are born into a society filled with them.
Foss, Sonja K., Mary E. Domenico, and Karen A. Foss. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a Binary World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2013. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.
Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.