The “Social Construction” Swindle

René Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and a notice in this morning’s mail informs me that she will deliver a lecture at this university next Tuesday evening. I’m afraid I will not be among those who will be edified by Dr. Flores, since on Tuesday evenings I either wash my hair or sort my socks. But even if I were free, I would not be tempted to take a place at Dr. Flores’ feet, because I already know the answer to the question that burns so hotly in the title of her lecture.

“Who is ‘Illegal’?”

The answer is, of course, no one!

Since this lecture is part of the Latinix Lecture Policy Issues Series, and Dr. Flores’ expenses will be covered by The Carlos J. Cantu Hispanic Education and Opportunity Endowment, you will not be surprised to learn that the illegality in question is the illegality of illegal immigration. Now I freely admit that persons guilty of immigrating illegally are often referred to as illegal immigrants, and even as “illegals,” but everyone (except, perhaps, Dr. Flores) understands that the illegality lies in what these immigrants have done and not in who they are.

I have never heard a man argue that an illegal immigrant is ontologically illegal, or that he would be illegal “in all possible worlds,” or that he would continue to be illegal if he returned to his own country. What I have heard men say, and I think quite reasonably, that the illegal immigrant’s unquestionable right to be does not entail his right to be here.

But what really caught my eye was Dr. Flores’ subtitle, “The Social Construction of Undocumented Status.” Not for the first time, I found myself wondering why intelligent people think that I will concede that they have scored a point when they observe that something or other is a “social construction.”

Do I really look that stupid?

When we call something a “social construction,” we are simply using inelegant language to say that it is a convention. A convention is simply “how things have come to be done,” and, among humans, how things have come to be done is almost always more or less artificial (i.e. a “construction”). It is conventional for men to dwell in houses, for instance, and to sleep in beds and go about in clothes. Doing things in this way is not a necessity of human existence, and some men have done otherwise, but because a great many people have found these ways highly convenient, they have become conventions (or “social constructions,” if you insist).

That there should be states, and that these states should have borders, and that persons should obtain permission before crossing these boundaries—these are all, obviously, conventions or “social constructions.” No cat has ever recognized the existence of a state, or the presence of a boundary, or the need to obtain permission before crossing over to the other side. Nor, I should add, has any savage. Man did not find the world furnished with these things as it was furnished with rivers, rocks and sky. Man made them. They are manmade. And once man made them, he retained them because he found them just as convenient as he found houses, beds and clothes.

People who make a lot of noise about “social constructions” are swindlers, although not for the reasons that are often supposed. It is not because the things they call “social constructions” are not “social constructions,” but because they are “social constructions” and nothing whatever follows from this fact. Society obviously constructed the category of “undocumented” when legislators wrote the laws that define citizenship and limit the visitation rights of foreigners. It was by likewise writing the relevant laws that society “constructed” the categories of murderer, jaywalker, embezzler, and child molester.

But nothing follows from this. The fact that society could deconstruct jaywalking by repealing the laws against jaywalking does not in any way indicate that society ought to deconstruct jaywalking. No more than the fact that I could deconstruct my bed with an ax indicates that I ought to deconstruct my bed.

34 thoughts on “The “Social Construction” Swindle

  1. Pingback: The “Social Construction” Swindle | @the_arv

  2. “X is a social construct” is the sort of meme that gives serious weight to the argument that Leftist memes are awful.

    Not raping people is also a social construct. Checkmate Atheists.

  3. Being undocumented or in a country without permission is by definition illegal. If not then nations do not exist. The professor is clearly a Mexican who hates the US but won’t go back. Mexico has no problems however of getting rid of Guatemalans or Ecuadorians who enter Mexico illegally. The professor would have no problem with that however. Such people are parasites attacking the host country from within like Goths entering Rome seeking to invade and destroy whatever they touch.

    • Oh, they’re far worse than the Goths. The Goths all wanted to be Romans, and did their best to be that way. They did not want to destroy Rome, or Romanitas, but to inhabit Rome and exhibit and themselves come to exemplify Romanitas. It just took them a while to learn the ways of civilization – as it had done for the Romans before them.

      The Left on the other hand wants to destroy Rome and all her heirs, and all that they mean; to level them, and salt their fields, as Rome did to the Cult of Moloch.

  4. Where does this woman live? Has she a nice house? Maybe we could all move into it and call it ‘Orthosphere Close’ or something appropriately modern and hideously bland. I’m sure she won’t mind when we remind her that the notions of property and contracts of ownership are merely ‘social constructions’.

  5. Pingback: The “Social Construction” Swindle | Reaction Times

  6. I understood that the term “construction” used in this manner derives from the verb to construe, rather than to construct. At least I think it used to be, back in the day when I was in university and this expression gained currency. Now people use it to suggest something that is artificial.

    • Construe and construct have the same Latin root, which means to pile up or build. The noun form of construct seems to have first appeared in psychology about 100 years ago. But you are certainly right to emphasize the role of interpretation in the doctrine of social construction. The doctrine posits that meaning is always made and never discovered. In the end it is a sort of collective solipsism.

  7. Our good Doctor, it seems to me, bears striking similarities to “Louie Lastik” on Remember the Titans: someone said “football,” er, rather, “social construct,” and she came runnin’. In any case, she’s way late to the party.

    I should imagine she would also identify closely with Lastik inasmuch as she ‘doesn’t have any people, but is with everybody.’ Or so she would have us believe.

    Keeping with your tradition of sorting your socks on Tuesdays, or, better still, breaking with the tradition to sort your underwear on this especial occasion, is the wise, and indeed the moral, thing to do.

  8. Some more work for deconstructionists:

    “Who is “racist”? The social construction of Deplorable status”

    “Who is a “rapist”? The social construction of ‘rape'”

    Perhaps a trilogy can be planned, with the last volume to deal with the social construction of discrimination?

    • Yes. But no matter how often I say that it cuts both ways, I still find that I’m the only one shedding blood. Maybe that’s a social construct too.

  9. Many people are fond of talking out of both sides of their mouths when they speak of “social constructions.” They will maintain, on the one hand, that race is just a social construct, and in the next breath absolutize categories of race when they want to sponsor racial identities on campus (think of the various exclusive centers, dedicated orientation sessions, clubs, and so forth that universities host) or when they expect you to check a box that will essentialize your ethnic category. So, which is it? If race is just socially constructed (i.e., imagined), then why this constant obsessing about it? Why am I constantly required to categorize myself and others? (My biracial daughter [Asian-Caucasian] is always annoyed whenever she is expected to limit her identity to one of the sponsored categories. Isn’t just “human” good enough?) Why do POC become angry whenever anyone advocates “color blindness”? Wouldn’t that be the logical conclusion if race is merely a social construct? Aren’t these inconsistencies blindingly obvious?

    • Roger, You have divined the pattern of liberalism, which contradicts itself completely on any given topic, as long as one considers all of its utterances on any given topic.

      JM, my reaction to the endless parade of the tenured and oppressed, the Prius-driving Whole-Foods-shopping oppressed, is revulsion to their tedium. All of these people pretending to celebrate the preposterously linked categories of equality and difference say exactly the same thing interchangeably speech after speech.

  10. Everyone here seems to (willfully?) miss the obvious point of calling attention to the socially constructed nature of something. It implies that it might be constructed differently.

    To pick a typical comment:

    If race is just socially constructed (i.e., imagined), then why this constant obsessing about it?

    Because social constructions are not unreal, they have real power, to the extent people believe in them. Somebody mentioned that borders are social constructions, which is true, but borders have real power and importance in the world, to the extent they are respected and reinforced (some borders fade away, others get altered by military or political events).

    So, if we all agree that borders are social constructs that are (a) important, and (b) fought over, then why should it be surprising that the social construct of race is also very important and a constant zone of conflict?

    And these zones of conflict are such precisely because they can be altered, they can be imagined to be different than they are. If not, nobody would bother fighting about them.

    [ note: there’s an incredible amount of nonsense written on both race and social construction, from all parties, so if you want to argue with the above, please argue with the above and not with some other thing that annoys or enrages you. ]

    • I don’t think I disagree with what you say here. The swindle is an assumption that a “social construction” is always a sham. Some are and some aren’t.

      • Yes. The swindle is in the presumption that social constructs are just stuff we make up for ultimately tendentious purposes – which are all, ex hypothesi, selfish purposes of social domination, and therefore ultimately evil – and do not derive properly from our interaction with reality. That, i.e., they are purely conventions, nowise rooted to life as it truly is.

        Such is postmodernism. It’s just nominalism, debased and stultified.

        If postmodernism is true, then postmodernism is nothing more than a social construct. The idea that there are social constructs? That’s a social construct.

        It’s a self-devouring theory.

      • Glad we agree to a large extent.

        But I think you people aren’t thinking consistently about your own stance.

        The swindle is in the presumption that social constructs are just stuff we make up for ultimately tendentious purposes – which are all, ex hypothesi, selfish purposes of social domination

        If a border is a social construct, is that a “swindle”? Obviously it reflects some settlement of different interests, along with interactions with the physical world. The Rio Grande is a a natural border, although whether it is the southern border of the US varies over time. The 45th parallel (border with Canada) is a wholly artificial line. And they are tools of social domination, almost by definition (they denote the end of one regime of domination and the start of another).

        they are purely conventions, nowise rooted to life as it truly is.

        This is confused: they are conventions precisely because they are rooted to life as it truly is. That is, anybody can draw a line on the ground and call it a border, but it only gets respected as a border if there is actual social power behind it. Not all boundaries are created equal. Arbitrary lines with no social power behind them don’t stick around long enough to become conventions. But others do.

      • What I’m calling the swindle is the pretense that a social construction is, ipso facto, some sort of sham. Academics love to triumphantly announce that something is a “social construct,” as if that alone was reason to tear it down. There are sham borders. I’d say the northern border of New Spain was pretty close to being a sham, since no one in Mexico City had ever seen it and it really was “just a line on a map.” What I’m calling a swindle happens when all borders are treated as “just lines on a map.”

        By the way, and speaking as a geographer, I think the world would be a better place if we were a little more open to border adjustment. World War II gave border adjustment a bad name, but I believe political borders should adjust to changes in the underlying ethnic and cultural reality. Conventions are useful or not useful, and they should not be dismissed or idolized.

      • Would that other Leftists were as reasonable as a.morphous! Alas, they are not.

        We hear from them lately that there is no such thing really as sex, or marriage, or babies, or children, or families, or nations, or peoples, or kinds of any sort whatever. These are all rather nothing more than social constructs, devised as instruments of domination.

      • I think you and Kristor are talking about different kinds of swindle. My last reply was mostly to Kristor.

        To you, I say, well, I’m sure there are examples of people using the idea of social construction to dismiss something as simply artificial, unimportant, or fraudulent — even from academics, who should know better. But that is not in general what social construction implies.

        Here for example, this is the first thing turned up by a google scholar search on “social construction race” — a book called White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Sounds pretty bad, I know. The introduction reads:

        My argument in this book is that race shapes white women’s lives. In the same way that both men’s and women’s lives are shaped by their gender…white people and people of color live racially structured lives. In other words, any system of differentiation shapes those on whom it bestows privilege as well as those it oppresses.

        Now, this kind of stuff may or may not be your cup of tea — can’t say I’m a big fan. However, although it is focused on the social construction of race it is plainly not trying to dismiss race as unimportant, quite the contrary, the point is that these constructs seep into every corner of mental and social life.

    • Well, certainly if by “social construction” we mean those aspects of commonly held notions that are arbitrary, that are reflections of consensus more than of physical realities, then yes, the term is potentially useful. If, say, the word “gender” were only applied to notions of sex-roles and identities that vary from one culture to another–that are clearly not based on biology–then its usage would be consistent and the word would be useful in discussions of social phenomena. But we all know the word is used very inconsistently. Some people simply use it as a euphemism for “sex.” Others will speak of “gender fluidity” in one breath–as if “gender” somehow comes and goes at will–while in the next breath they speak as if gender identities are unalterable, written into the metaphysical structure of things, and to resist going along with someone’s chosen identity clearly marks one as a bigot. One minute it’s “socially constructed,” then next it’s absolute and essentialized. Of course “they can be imagined to be different than they are.” Who say’s they can’t be? I was merely pointing out the inconsistency of trying to have it both ways.

  11. When Leftists invoke the idea of social construction (which by itself is perfectly legitimate and indispensably important in the human sciences), what they mean of course is that *your* ideas and beliefs are so many man-made constructs and therefore contingent and false. Not theirs.

  12. Social construction arguments tend draw encouragement from phenomenology. This tells us that all aspects of experience are “constructed” by the mind from an underlying and inaccessible noumena. To some people, this seems to imply that we could change the world simply by a change in consciousness. After all (following phenomenology) the world is just an image, and it can therefor be changed by imagination.

    I think there is some truth in this line of argument, but also considerable danger. From the fact that the phenomenal world might be constructed differently, it does not follow that all constructions are equal, or that we would be better off with the world constructed differently than the way it is constructed. Madness is an alternative construction of the world, and many intellectuals have romanticized madness, but I (for one) do not wish to live in a world of mad men, even if they are mad in exactly the same way.

    Social construction arguments also draw on the Marxist doctrine of a legitimating ideology. When you cut through all the jargon, what this comes down to is the unremarkable observation that people tend to paint their own portraits in the best light. So, sure! The Bourgeoise wishes to keep its money, and so says that it earned it. The Proletariat wants to take money from the Bourgeoise, and so says that they stole it. Both sides tell a “story,” but this does not mean that both stories are equally fictitious.

    And the story that is true (or at least most true) will always be to someone’s advantage. The truth puts some people (and peoples, and classes) in a “better light” than others.

    • Well put. As a.morphous points out, the Leftist critique of the socially constructed dominant narrative is *consciously* tendentious. The post-modernist Left has rejected the possibility of a socially constructed narrative that is approximately *true,* and therefore *just.* Its critique of the dominant narrative is therefore motivated, not by any nisus toward justice, but rather only by envy.

      • On the contrary, it is only by being tendentious that we can achieve justice. The history of modern society (which I get it, you guys don’t like and would prefer to reverse) is that of oppressed or marginalized classes of people struggling for justice against entrenched powers that would deny it to them. This is a tendentious process which (in MLK’s phrase) bends towards justice.

        Call it “envy” if you like, but I think it’s an inappropriate term. Envy occurs between rough equals — maybe I envy my neighbor for his better car or larger house. But people who can’t even dream of moving into the neighborhood because of large-scale historical injustice, and try to correct that — doesn’t really seem like the word applies.

      • Marxism is an interesting example. As an ideology justifying class hatred and proletarian revolution, it is excellent. As a guide to running an economy it falls a little short.

        I’m not opposed to sustaining myths, but I do think myths of oppression and marginalization almost always turn sour. They foment hatred and prevent self-criticism. Most “oppressed and marginalized” groups have simply been poor performers, and myths of oppression justify their remaining poor performers. The Jews are the only outstanding case of emancipation leading to rapid rise, and they are a special case. Until the 18th century, Jews were largely self-marginalized.

      • Tendention can’t tend toward justice if there is no such thing as justice in the first place. And on post-modernism, there is no such thing as justice. There are only competing narratives. That is all.

      • Call it “envy” if you like, but I think it’s an inappropriate term.

        I agree: envy isn’t the correct word; covetousness is what you’re describing.

        But people who can’t even dream of moving into the neighborhood because of large-scale historical injustice, and try to correct that …

        Yeah, the doctrine of the “higher law.” It’s been around awhile. We’re all familiar with it. The limits of its excesses, and application to every perceived “injustice” (many of which only became injustices last Tuesday) known, or which shall be known, to man is boundless. Yesterday it was the injustice of taxing femine hygeine products; who knows what tomorrow will bring?

      • I considered using “covetousness,” but I decided at last that it was not broad enough. The Left does not simply covet the economic goods of the prosperous. It envies every sort of excellence: manly strength, womanly beauty, fecundity, longevity, authority, knowledge, intelligence, virtue, fitness, athleticism, enterprise, invention, entrepreneurship, skill, height, blond hair, blue eyes, facial symmetry, good health – you name it.

        What goods of any sort it cannot appropriate to itself, it would destroy. So, the Left will not be content with taking your property. It will want your life, eventually.

  13. Pingback: Musings on a Post Social Construction World | Notes From a Red Pill Girl

  14. Just by chance I was pondering social constructs and such in my blog post today and a regular linked to this. So well said!

    Despite what the PhD believes, social constructs may be “artificial” but that does not mean they are not real, or that they are not (excuse the pun) constructive.

    I will soon be traveling outside of the United States, where I am a citizen (according to social constructs.) To do so I needed to get a passport. I will need to carry the passport with me at all times to prove who I am (I suppose another social construct.) I cannot just stay in the country I will be traveling to, there is an agreed upon social construct that I am visiting and will return to my (socially constructed) home after my trip.

    It’s very 2016-18ish to think all social constructs are bad and should be eliminated bc they are oppressive, outdated, and unnecessary. That’s basically anarchy, and anarchy often leads to somebody (the strongest or meanest but not always best) person to them seize that vacuum of power and start reconstructing some sort of social order, often with an ends justifies the means approach.

    Social constructions may not be needed in some mythical utopia, but any person who has expectations that their personal property and possessions are theirs and that if someone doesn’t get that there will be (possibly very dangerous) repercussions for crossing those socially constructed lines, is a fool.

    There are no stable anarchy based systems operating without agreed upon and shared social constructs, now are there? No. Those are called war zones.

    I don’t get how so many people fail to see these things… But they do.


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