What I Mean by “Construction”

In my previous post, I mentioned “demonizing constructions of the other” in passing. Perhaps I should explain what “construction” means to me, since it’s a vital concept in discussions of gender and sexuality (or really, of almost anything to do with humans interacting with each other).

In many areas of critical theory, there’s a distinction drawn between “essence” and “construction,” with an essence being an innate, immutable fact of existence and a construction being something that is experienced and understood by means of a socially agreed-upon framework. You might think of essence as the pattern of ink on a piece of paper, and of construction as the words that form in your mind when you look at that pattern. Your experience of those words is a result of you having been taught to recognize the ink and paper as writing, and all of your accumulated, socially-determined experiences with those particular words constitute their meaning to you.

In terms of our interactions with each other, we read each other (and ourselves) through the languages of constructions of identity. One common example of the difference between essence and construction when it comes to identity is the difference between biological sex and gender. Biological sex, the explanation often goes, is an essence, a physical reality. Different bodies have different characteristics and are assigned to different sexes at birth. Gender, in contrast, is often described as a construction. The essence is what the body is; the construction is what we say the body means. Wearing pink, for instance, isn’t an essential attribute of the female body; it’s a construction of one form of Western femininity.

We get problems when constructions are mistaken for essences and any deviations from the expected ways of constructing identity are taken for departures from the order of nature and are policed, “corrected,” and erased. If wearing pink were to be taken as an essence of womanhood, any woman who did not like to wear pink could be accused of not truly being a woman. Recognizing ways in which society mistakes constructions for essences and enforces certain constructions as essential norms is important to feminist cultural critiques.

Of course, as you can tell from the common example of sex vs. gender, making a distinction between essence and construction is actually more complicated than body vs. identity. Or at least it should be, since the way that physical attributes are perceived is inseparable from how we are taught to perceive. In connection with sex vs. gender, as Judith Butler and others have discussed, the assignment of biological sex at birth is itself working off of a social construction of “sex.” Not only does the totalizing binary of male/female assignments deny the existence of intersex persons, and the social expectation that a person’s assigned biological sex match their gender identity deny the existence of transgender persons, but also there is nothing self-evident about the need to assign a biological sex to an infant. That need is socially constructed.

So for me, the distinction between essence and construction in the creation of categories of identity tends to come down to the body and lived experiences (essences) in contrast with anything these are said to mean (constructions), keeping in mind that what might be considered bodily or experiential essences are themselves always already perceived through frameworks that are socially constructed (“paper” and “ink” are socially defined even before you begin to read). Categories of identity like gender, race, class, and sexual orientation are all social constructions.

It’s often objected that the idea of the social construction of identity dangerously denies the existence of any kind of reality, sending us all to drown in a whirlpool of mental chaos. But social realities are still realities, and being a social construction doesn’t mean that a category of identity isn’t real. Just as the fact that language is socially constructed doesn’t mean that I’m not actually writing in English, the fact that gender is socially constructed doesn’t mean that I’m not actually a woman. Nor does the recognition of a category of identity as a social construction mean that those who belong to that category must have a choice about it, especially in terms of how they are perceived by others. In the United States, a person of color will have different experiences than a white person; a cisgender man will have different experiences than a transman; a straight woman will have different experiences than a gay man; an able-bodied woman will have different experiences than a woman with a disability, and so on—recognizing race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability/disability as constructed categories of identity isn’t an effort to deny that.

Instead, seeing such categories as social constructions is important because it means that change is possible in their large-scale formulations. Like the way that language changes over time, so that old words take on new meanings and new words are created, the social languages we use to talk about ourselves to each other are open to alteration.

Though something being a social construction is not in itself negative (the way that a language is not in itself negative or positive), dominant groups often define the less powerful or those perceived as different in negative ways, and then treat those definitions as if they were essential and eternal. So realizing that negative constructions aren’t actually based on an immutable natural order can help in changing or rejecting those constructions and the associated negative actions toward others.

Working toward large-scale social shifts is one reason for recognizing the existence of constructions. Another reason is that realizing that constructions of identity vary from place to place and from person to person can help to create greater tolerance for difference. For example, seeing gender as a construction makes it easier to think that there are a multitude of valid ways for a woman to do gender or to perform femininity, not just one solitary form of “true womanhood.”

A nation, culture, or group creates its own identity by creating an opposing identity for an othered group, the way that Edward Said describes the “West” viewing the heterogenous cultures of the “East” as a homogenous, lesser entity. In the same way, on a personal level, we tend to create our own identities by viewing particular others or particular groups as lesser (and ourselves as therefore greater). I know that my views of those around me are shaped by social constructions and that my actions play a part in creating, perpetuating, and enforcing negative, constricting models of identity. So to me, thinking about categories of identity as constructions is important because I know that I need to be more critical of my own processes of social reading.

For me, the idea that we can and should work against the limitations on identity constructed by dominant groups parallels the liberatory thrust of the New Testament—the realization that in Christ, we are free from enforcing the binaries and boundaries of identities like Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, as if these were essences. However, I know that for some other Christians, the idea of social construction seems dangerous or even anti-Christian. I’m not going to talk about the common Christian objections to the idea of socially constructed identities now, since I’ve probably just repeated the word “construction” many more times than any of you wanted to read it. In later posts, I’ll come back to this topic to discuss a few of those objections, as well as to talk about the role that treating sexual orientation as a socially constructed category of identity often plays in Biblical scholarship dealing with sexual orientation.

I’m sorry for the lateness of this post, though not for the cause of the lateness (I’m in South Korea enjoying all things Jeonju with my sister).

photo credit: fatboyke (Luc) via photopin cc (cropped and resized)


  1. I’ve always wanted to dig deeper into social constructs and I thought this was well written – especially loved the companion to writing/reading ink on paper

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