Children learn how to perform gender identities in an old sepia photograph where boys and girls and paired off with each other on the playground

How Are Identities Socially Constructed?

Integral to intersectional feminism is the idea that identity is socially constructed.

A social constructionist view of identities understands what it means to be a ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘Black’, ‘white’, ‘queer’, ‘disabled’, etc. are historically and culturally contingent as well as shaped by power.

Social constructionism is the underlying philosophical view that believes our meanings about the world are co-created by people, rather than reflections of an ‘objective’ reality.

Social constructionism is not the norm. The dominant belief about identities in our societies is essentialism. Essentialism believes that our identities are linked to a fixed, universal, innate ‘essence’. People who share an identification are then assumed to share unique traits and attributes.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Simone de Beauvoir (1949) The Second Sex

One of the most common ways intersectional feminism is misunderstood is by applying an essentialist view of identity.

Intersectionality theory and activism, are at their root, about dismantling structural oppression such as patriarchy and white supremacy. However, people who take an essentialist view of identity often become preoccupied with individual differences.

A typical example of this is when people think intersectionality is just about the combination of multiple identity categories. In other words, that being a queer woman of color means you’re ‘intersectional’ or that you ‘have’ intersectionality.

Polaroid of a glamorous drag queen with platinum blonde hair, a long, elegant black gown, and long black beaded earrings, representing the social construction of identity
Photograph by cottonbro

Origins of Social Constructionism

The origins of social constructionism in Western philosophy can be traced back to sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman and their book, The Social Construction of Reality, which was published in 1966.

Berger and Luckman proposed that the meanings in and about our world are co-created by people. Social constructs can become so entrenched that we take them for granted as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, but they’re always informed by the specific sociocultural contexts that produced them.

This view of the world rejects the idea of a single, universal truth, and instead sees multiple ‘truths’ being in a constant battle with one another for legitimacy.

Take the saying “boys will be boys”. When someone says this phrase, they’re assuming a shared truth with the listener that you know what it supposedly means to be a boy. In many cultures, it’s generally an unspoken truth that boys are noisy, boisterous, and aggressive. This saying reflects our social assumption that these traits are universally inherent to male children.

To talk about gender as though it’s universal, ‘natural’, biological attributes overlooks the ways our social meanings about gender have changed throughout history and across cultures.

Socially Constructed Doesn’t Mean “Not Real”

A common misconception about the term “socially constructed” is that people think it’s another way of saying “imaginary”, “not real”, and “completely made up”.

This can lead critics to dismiss the challenges social constructionists mount against identity categories:

“They think there’s no such thing as reproductive organs!”

An essentialist

Social constructionism is not a rejection of material reality, but a recognition of the ways our material reality is only meaningful to us because of the ideas we attach to it. A reproductive organ is no more a biological feature than blood type, yet in my country of Australia, we hold enormous weight to gender but don’t typically ask new parents their baby’s blood type. We don’t attach generalized beliefs about their characteristics or behaviors and say things like “O negatives will be O negatives”.

That being said, the male/female gender binary is imaginary, not real, and completely made up. We have vital knowledge provided by intersex activists who demonstrate that the binary gender system is not an accurate reflection of material, biological reality.

Intersex people have been pathologized in our society and subjected to surgeries to be ‘fixed’ so that they can conform to our binary gender system. Intersex activists have helped us to understand that it’s our social constructs around gender that are wrong and ought to be changed, not intersex people and their bodies.

Identities are Politically Driven

Race is another example that by looking through history we can see how it has been socially constructed.

What it means to be ‘white’ has changed over time. For example, historian Noel Ignatiev demonstrated through his book, How the Irish Became White, well, how Irish Catholic migrants in the United States became ‘white’.

In the early years of their immigration from the 1840s, Irish Catholics were oppressed alongside African Americans by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. Ignatiev traced how Irish Catholics were compared with African Americans and called “[n-word] turned inside out”.

How the Irish Became White, while controversial and hotly debated, suggests that whiteness is not some objective measure of skin color or heritage, but it’s about power.

Socially constructed identities are not always externally-imposed labels.

In the foreword to Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, journalist Jeff Chang reminds us that “there was a time when the term ‘Asian American’ was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world”.

What Chang’s quote captures is that ‘Asia’, as Earth’s largest continent, doesn’t have anything meaningfully in common across its countries and cultures. However, the long struggle for social justice in the United States meant that many Chinese, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and other Asian Americans understood the value of coming together under the united banner of ‘Asian American’ to fight for their collective freedom.

So it’s not that the social construction of difference is in itself problematic, but the hierarchy we attach to them is. These are some of our Greatest Hits of Oppression:

  • The social construction of men as ‘naturally’ stronger and more capable has been used to justify the social and economic oppression of women for centuries.
  • The social construction of white as more intelligent and virtuous has justified the genocide of Native Peoples and their ongoing oppression alongside people of color and people in the Global South.
  • The social construction of heterosexuality as normal and healthy has justified the criminalization and brutalization of LGBTQIA+ people.
  • The social construction of able-bodied and neurotypicality as healthy and whole has justified the abuse of disabled and neurodivergent people and their marginalization as ‘unproductive’ cogs in the imbecilic capitalist machinery

Identities are Performed

One of the most compelling contemporary views of identity is as a performance.

Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s 1987 article, ‘Doing gender’, describes how we are assigned a gender category at birth. This categorization is determined by the appearance of our sexual organs. If our organs are ambiguous in any way, we’ll be force-fit into one group.

From there, we learn what our gender means in our particular social contexts (e.g., our family, the school playground, our community) and practice ‘doing gender’ within this framework.

If we transgress this socially constructed binary, we are chided (sometimes gently, sometimes more aggressively) to get back in line.

Judith Butler’s groundbreaking book, Gender Trouble, emphasizes the ways our gender performances are embodied acts that are repeated throughout our lives. For example, women might speak at a higher pitch than what is naturally comfortable to sound more ‘feminine’.

Seeing identity as a performance also allows us to understand how people in different contexts may ‘do’ gender, race, or class in various ways. For example, research has shown how women fit in, survive, and gain power in organizations and politics by putting on stereotypical displays of masculinity.

People of color can also perform whiteness by constraining and suppressing ‘ethnic’ styles of dress, hair, and speech. They would usually do this at job interviews or rental application meetings to try and avoid racial discrimination.

Two children playing with wooden blocks on a rug in a bedroom, highlighting the ways we begin the social construction of identity from childhood
Photograph by Alex Green

Identities are Connected to Systems of Power

The essentialist view of identity can make us fixated on individuals. So if we talk about sexism, people assume we’re blaming men.

bell hooks, however, would remind us that “patriarchy has no gender”.

Sexism is not something that only men do. It’s a set of historically and culturally ingrained practices grounded in our social belief that men and masculinity are superior to women and femininity. Challenging gender inequality is not about rounding up the so-called ‘sexists’, but changing our shared meanings about gender difference.

Similarly, race scholar Yassir Morsi points out the limiting ways we love to measure racism by counting the number of racists. Morsi reminds us that “racism produces racists, not the other way around, and it can exist without them”.

Seeing gender and other identity categories as social constructs means we can recognize their fragility, silliness, and impermanence.

It also means we can playfully experiment with redefining identities in ways that are truly just, inclusive, and liberatory.

Learn More

Judith Butler (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

The Malta Declaration was drafted in 2013 by 34 intersex activists at the Third International Intersex Forum. They advance the idea that intersex people are not ‘abnormal’ and challenge the infanticide, mutilation, and forced sterilization of intersex people in order to maintain the idea of a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ gender binary.

Jeffrey Weeks (2004) Sexuality offers a comprehensive overview of the social construction of sexuality throughout history.

Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151.

Social constructionism is frequently confused with “constructivism”. While some people use these terms interchangeably, constructivism is originally a developmental psychology theory. Constructivism was advanced by scholars such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, who argued that learning develops through shared processes of social interaction and language use.

Featured image by Suzy Hazelwood

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