Social constructs reflect shared ideas or perceptions that exist only because people in a group or society accept that they do. Learn more about what social constructs really are and explore a selection of social construct examples.
Social constructs develop within a society or group. They don't represent objective reality but instead are meaningful only because people within the society or group accept that they have meaning. Simply put, social constructs do not have inherent meaning. The only meaning they have is the meaning given to them by people.
For example, the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys is an example of a social construct related to gender and the color of items. The collective perception that a particular color can be associated with a certain gender is not an objective representation of truth or fact. Instead, it a social convention that came to have meaning within the context of society.
There are many examples of social constructs. Most common practices and behaviors that are generally accepted within a society or other group represent social constructs. These societal norms don't have to be accepted by every single person in order to be social constructs. They can (and often do) change over time.
- adulthood - The specific of when a person is considered to be an adult is a social construct. In the United States and most of the European Union, people are considered to be adults at the age of 18. In Scotland, however, people are considered to be adults at the age of 16.
- gender behaviors - The concept of certain behaviors being specific to a person's gender is a social construct. This applies to the idea that men should keep their emotions bottled up or the notion that women are overly emotional. It also applies to beliefs that boys should play with trucks and girls with dolls.
- gender roles - There are also social constructs associated with gender roles, such as the formerly widely held belief that women should stay home and men should work. This also relates to beliefs that certain types of jobs are women's work (nurses, teachers), while others represent men's work (doctors, construction work).
- government - The concept of how government should work is a social construct. People in different societies don't all have the same collective perception regarding how government should work. That's why there are so many different types of government around the world.
- greetings - The manner in which people greet each other is a social construct. Shaking hands, for example, is meaningful as a business greeting only because people view it that way. The same is true for kissing people on both cheeks as a greeting in cultures where that is a common practice.
- disability - The concept of disability is a social construct. The social construct of disability often relates to visible indicators of disability, such as a wheelchair or missing limbs. People who have less visible disabilities are often misunderstood because their conditions don't fit into the social constructs of others.
- family - The concept of family is a social construct. Some perceive family to be limited to the traditional nuclear unit of mother, father and biological children, while others take the broader perspective that there are many types of family structures.
- fashion - The idea of what type of apparel is considered fashionable is an example of a social construct that changes quickly. What is fashionable one year may not be fashionable the next, based on how what designers create and influencers share catches on in the larger society.
- illness - Illness is also a social construct. The word "illness" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone; some only perceive medical conditions as illnesses if they would cause a person to be bed-ridden or contagious, while others perceive a wide variety of medical circumstances to represent illnesses.
- marriage - The concept of marriage is a social construct that is not perceived the same by all groups. Some groups view it as a contract while others see it as a religious sacrament. Within some groups, marriages are arranged while in others the decision of who to marry and whether to marry is a choice.
- money - Currency used as money is made of paper and metal. It only has value because people in society assign value to it. Before paper money and coins existed, people used other items that had value to exchange for goods and services.
- religion - Aspects of religious practices can represent social constructs specific to a certain denomination or faith. For example, in Catholicism, women are not allowed to serve as priests. However, in many other faiths, women are allowed to serve as priests or the equivalent (pastor, preacher, rabbi, etc.).
- time - Time is a social construct. It is meaningful only in the context of the human-created systems that are used to describe time (seconds, minutes, hours, etc.) and make it meaningful. In some places, Daylight Savings Time is not observed; the concept of seasonal time changes does not exist where they are not practiced.
Several other words and phrases can be used to mean the same thing as the phrase social construct. Synonyms for this term include things like:
- acceptable practice
- behavioral expectations
- common perception
- cultural norm
- customary practice
- shared understanding
- societal norms
The theory behind how social constructs develop is called social constructionism theory. Just as construction workers would build (construct a building), the theory of social constructionism posits that society is a social construct that is made (constructed) and accepted by people.
Social constructs will cease to exist if people stop viewing them as valid. People who subscribe to this theory hold that reality itself is a social construct created by the people within a society.
Expanding your understanding of social constructs involves considering which of the things you "know" actually have objective meaning versus which ones are meaningful only because people in a group assign meaning to them and continue to allow that assigned meaning to persist. Explore your perceptions vs. those of others' by reviewing some examples of sociological imagination. This will allow you to consider situations from other points of view and come to appreciate perspectives other than your own.