To quote legendary “Seinfeld” character George Costanza, “you know, we’re living in a society.”
In the scene in which he says this, Costanza is attempting to point out how he wants other people to behave, likely with influence from social constructs.
Social constructs are ideas that have been created and accepted by people in a society — often dictating how people “should” behave or identify in relation to others. These include things like gender, race, and money or wealth.
Social constructs don’t have meaning until a society gives them meaning, often attempting to make sense of the world at large.
But that also means that social constructs can be flexible; they can be examined, questioned, or changed to fit the evolving needs of societies and the people that live within them.
This is especially important when social constructs cause harm or actively oppress people. In fact, the term “social construct” itself can be used to minimize the lived experiences of people or groups that have been marginalized.
A tweet from Black disabled activist Imani Barbarin describes this well.
“My biggest pet peeve is whenever a Black person talks about racism, a white person will inevitably say ‘race is a social construct,’” Barbarin writes. “That’s like if someone were to say ‘I don’t like my toast burnt,’ and someone replied with, ‘well, toast is just bread.’”
In order to understand — and, ultimately, challenge — social constructs, we need to know what some of them are. Here’s a list of examples to get you started.
Examples of Social Constructs
Top Examples of Social Constructs
Race is a culmination of the cultural and social meanings assigned to various people based on physical attributes — specifically skin pigmentation. The process of designating certain groups to a “race” is called racialization.
Throughout history (starting around the 1500s), different groups of people have been oppressed, enslaved, and marginalized solely on the basis of their skin color — or preconceived cultural associations about their biology. This unequal treatment has continued to this day.
Race isn’t a “biological fact," but the impact of race as a social construct is that people are associated with social and cultural assumptions (and prejudices) that essentially prescribe how they will be treated in society.
“Historically, it has been white people who hold the social, political, and economic power to name and categorize people of color and Indigenous peoples due to colonial history,” the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre writes. “In many countries, whiteness is maintained as the ‘norm’ that other races are measured against.”
Racial identities often hold social and cultural value to those in marginalized groups, but it’s important to know where the social construct of race comes from — and how it impacts people in both helpful and harmful ways.
Gender is another widely-held social construct that has impacted modern society so much that we must remind ourselves that there is a difference between someone’s gender identity and their sexual biology (which is also a lot more complicated than many of us have been led to believe).
Despite the diversity of gender identity in humans, for much of history, people have believed that men and women had specific gender-related roles that were determined by their biology.
While many of those notions have finally been debunked, women still face oppression and unequal treatment in nearly every facet of modern life (financial equality and access to health care being some of the most prominent gender-based inequities in the United States).
However, changes in recent years prove that the social construct of gender has changed rapidly, seeing people of all genders take on diverse, powerful roles in society. This disproves that men and women are only capable of certain biology-based roles or behaviors.
And perhaps the most clear “threat” to long-held gendered beliefs is the mere existence of those who live outside of the gender binary of “man” or “woman.”
While transgender and gender nonconforming folks are still deeply marginalized around the world, their very real and valuable existence is proof that gender is a social construct — and one that can be played with, explored, and changed to fit our most authentic identities.
Geographic borders are often brought up in conversations about keeping people out of a country, region, or neighborhood. But have you ever stopped to think about who created those hard lines — and why they keep some people in and others out?
Unless there is a constructed wall or blockade, borders between nations often do not consist of physical barriers that separate one place from another. They are designated by governments and controlled and regulated by border patrol agents (which are often part of a country’s military or police force).
Borders can certainly be helpful to maintain safety or regulate trade, but scholars and artists alike wonder what the world would look like if the places we lived were not restricted in the name of capital trade.
Besides, borders change. America started as an original thirteen colonies and now exists as a coast-to-coast nation with 50 states. Nations around the world control territories through imperialism, and these socially constructed borders shoulder a lot of blame for many of history’s wars and conflicts.
“Borders are not just ‘visible lines’ in space or on a map,” Beatrix Haselsberger, a senior researcher at the Vienna University of Technology, wrote in a 2014 study. “On the contrary; they are complex social constructions, with many different meanings and functions imposed on them.”
Nationality is the idea that someone belongs to or is a member of a particular nation, often through legal status. It’s a fairly easy social construct to understand because it can clearly mean something very different to different people — and across different generations.
For instance, in the 1950s, it meant something very different to be an American than it does today. And from one person to another, “being American” can be entirely up to interpretation.
That being said, pride in one’s nationality can lead to dangerous beliefs like nationalism, but it can also be a uniting ideal for people who treasure their heritage and cultural practices. This is especially true for immigrants and refugees who have moved from their home country to another.
Regardless, it’s important to consider what it means for someone to “belong” to a region or nation, and what that means about who is also allowed to “belong” somewhere new. (Especially when a nation and its shared identity is built on Indigenous lands that were colonized by settlers.)
Age is one social construct that really does have some meaningful roots in biological differences — and the reality that our human bodies do change and get older over time.
However, the social assumptions of people in different stages of life, and how they deserve to be treated, vary vastly in different cultures.
Take, for instance, cultures that truly cherish people of older generations, build honor codes into family structures to care for elders without question. Conversely, in other cultures — even if it’s not widely discussed — elderly communities are often neglected, or even abused, for being considered less-than or weak.
What it means to be a certain age also varies from person to person. Ask any 20-something in America what they “should” be doing in life, and you’re going to find a vast array of answers.
“The images and beliefs about any age group in a society indicate the kind of social order prevailing in a particular time and place,” a 1979 study from Western Michigan University shares.
A lot of times, “being intelligent” depends on who you are with, or what is being asked of you. It’s all about the context and situation.
For example, a mechanic is probably very practically intelligent, while an English professor would likely consider themselves to be academically intelligent. Both of these types of intelligence are valuable, especially in context to their environments, but oftentimes, one is valued more than the other.
This doesn’t mean that ideas about intelligence are arbitrary or made up, but rather wholly dependent on the social environment one is in and what skills or abilities are valued most.
Additionally, measurements like IQ often don’t take into account someone’s other characteristics, like the access they had to education growing up. They can be great at measuring someone’s logic and abstract reasoning skills, but they aren’t exactly the ideal tool to determine someone’s creativity or practical skills (colloquially known as ‘street smarts’.)
“IQ tests measure an important domain of cognitive functioning and they are moderately good at predicting academic and work success. But they are incomplete,” Keith Stanovich, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, told NewScientist.
“They fall short of the full panoply of skills that would come under the rubric of “good thinking.’”
Social class is simply a division of people into different categories based on their social and economic status. Wealthy or impoverished people are given a number of assumed value-judgments due to their class status that impact how successful they will be in society.
A great example of this is the social media trend of asking “What’s classy if you’re rich and trashy if you’re poor?”
Online, answers include examples like being bilingual, living in a “tiny home” or camper, or having access to government benefits or tax breaks.
Outside of the U.S., social class systems have existed for centuries in other parts of the world. The first that comes to mind is the Indian caste system, which is “one of the world’s oldest forms of social stratification,” according to the BBC.
Dating back to ancient India, the caste system created a hierarchy of social elites like priests and teachers at the top, and “outcastes” like street sweepers and cleaners on the bottom.
Beauty is a social construct that has definitely changed over time — and varies widely across cultures.
Our ideas about what kinds of physical attributes (like body shape, clothing, hair, makeup, and more) are considered beautiful have even varied widely in the last couple of decades.
For instance, in the early 2000s, women were expected to meet a beauty standard of extreme thinness, while now, the expectation of a “slim thick” body (skinny in some places, curvy in others) seems to be the ideal.
You can thank the Kardashians for that one.
No, seriously — current beauty standards are often interwoven with gender roles and social class, and celebrities (and, uh, our corporate overlords) tend to dictate what is most desirable.
If you want a more macro view, however, consider beauty standards as they relate to masculinity and femininity. Centuries ago, male European royals were known for their wigs, high heels, makeup, and flowing garments. In 2023, it is considered against the cultural norm for a man to wear a dress, heels, or makeup.
These examples remind us that beauty can and will never be one objective fact and that our societies, communities — and selves — construct beauty in different ways.
The social construct of coolness or trendiness used to change generationally — just think about some catchphrases your dad brought with him from the ’80s if you need a reminder.
But these days, trends — especially in fashion — seem to come and go at lightning speed. This makes sense, since trendiness is usually dictated by our popular media.
Where our parents had radio and TV to tell them what to wear and how to act, we now have the Internet SuperHighway — otherwise known as social media influencers.
This can have negative and positive impacts. For instance, micro-trends also have a dangerous impact on our consumption habits, encouraging people to shop for new clothes, goods, or “must-haves” that almost instantly lose their appeal.
But equally as interesting is that, nowadays, we are able to cast a much wider net on what is trendy, cool, or socially acceptable, making it a lot easier to find belonging and community with others.
“We follow trends because we want to belong,” Carolyn Mair, author of “The Psychology of Fashion,” told Good On You. “When we follow a trend, we show our belonging to others who follow that trend and dissociate ourselves from those who do not.”
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