Initial Thoughts on Social Constructs.

In the last few years, I’ve seen the phrase “Social Construct” crop up again and again. Especially, with regard to concepts such as race, gender, sexuality, and so on.

I don’t want to think through these specific topics right now, but I want to take a step back and understand what it means for something to be a social construct, and then another day I can evaluate concepts such as race and gender through this understanding of a social construct.

The idea of a “social construct’ comes from the theory of social constructionism — which essentially states that there are two types of facts:

  1. Objective facts. These depend on physical reality and can stand by themselves regardless of whether there are humans around to think about them.
  2. Social Constructs or “Subjective Facts”. These do not depend on o physical reality but instead are centered on shared ways of thinking about the world that develops in the minds of groups of people. These “facts” would not exist unless groups of people agreed that they exist.

This reminds me of the point that Yuval Noah Harari makes in Homo Deus (I’ve written a summary here) about the differences between humans and animals.

Animals have two realities:

  1. Objective
  2. Subjective

Their objective reality is the same as ours. They perceive and are familiar with trees, rocks, rivers, and clouds. They are also aware of subjective experiences within themselves, such as fear, joy, desire, and perhaps some type of specific emotions that humans do not have.

Humans, in contrast, live in a world that contains the same two realities as animals but also contains a third reality. This reality is told through stories about money, gods, nations, and corporations.

Over time, these stories have grown more and more powerful at the expense of things like rivers, fears, and desires.

This all started around 70,000 years ago during the Cognitive Revolution when Sapiens began talking about things that existed only in their imagination. However, these stories didn’t become compelling because they were constrained to be local in nature. So not enough people believed in them for these subjective realities to have an enormous impact on reality.

Only 12,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution, which provided the necessary material base for creating bigger and bigger population centers, the stories became more powerful, and powerful Gods emerged that were worshiped by many people.

But still, there weren’t any vast kingdoms, no extensive trade networks, and no universal religions.

This obstacle was finally removed about 5,000 years ago with the invention of both writing and money, which allowed Sapiens to go beyond the data-processing power of the human brain and create long, complex stories that made powerful intersubjective realities in the shape of Gods. These Gods acted very much as modern corporations and governments work now, by employing thousands of people and extracting taxes to do specific projects deemed necessary.

Of course, the Gods didn’t run anything, mainly because they didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop their intersubjective reality from hiring flesh and blood humans in the forms of priests and soldiers to do their collective bidding. Because these Gods never died, they become more and more potent over time.

So back to Social Constructs. Clearly, there are things, or categorization of things, that does not really exist, but are agreements between groups of people to aid a shared understanding of the world and to make life easier.

A good example of this is the value of the US dollar. In reality, the pieces of printed paper that represents the US dollar are not very valuable. It is made up of a paper that is around 75% cotton and 25% linen, plus some ink. So, the “real” value of the dollar is whatever the market value is of the cotton and linen and ink, plus it should be discounted because it is already blended.

The Federal Reserve notes that it costs 7.5 cents to make a $1 bill and around 17 cents to make a $100 bill, probably because of the heightened security measures on the more expensive bills.

So why is a $100 bill worth $100, and not 17 cents? That is because everyone agrees that it is worth $100. People will swap $100 worth of products and services in exchange for that piece of paper.

Even crazier, is that nowadays a lot of money is actually digital, which means it is just an entry in a ledger stored in a database at a bank or financial institution. This means that it is just represented by a few circuits on a computer chip somewhere in a data center.

So the value of that is as close to zero as you can imagine.

And yet, the system seems to work. You can earn dollars one day, and you can be certain that you will be able to spend them the next day, because of this shared reality that everyone has.

We can see what happens when these shared realities stop being shared, with the recent example of the Luna coin that went from being worth $116.39 per coin to $0.000095, losing almost all of its value in a matter of days.

Nothing actually changed in the underlining coin, it was the same digital system that it was before, but now people were not willing to exchange one coin for $116.39 dollars, and instead will give you $0.000095 dollars instead.

While this is an intersubjective reality, it obviously has very practical and real-world consequences.

We have to be very careful with social constructs, especially with claiming what is objective truth vs subjective truth. This is especially important with subjects such as race, gender, and science in general because to be able to have meaningful conversations as a society, we need to be able to agree on what is true.

If we cannot have meaningful conversations, history shows us that the only alternative is violence. A society that uses violence to sort out disagreements is not a place where most of us would want to live.

And I really want to stress this. The ability for two or more people to sit down, have a conversation, agree on the facts, and use reason and logic to come to a conclusion (even if that is a compromise between two opposing viewpoints), and then for those parties to agree on a way forward, is of the utmost importance.

This is why ensuring we know the difference between standalone facts and subjective opinion is extremely important.

You can choose your opinions, but you cannot choose your facts, however much you disagree with them.

The exception to this, of course, is if you can bring hard evidence to create a paradigm shift in thinking, and showcase those previously known facts are actually incorrect, and that there are new facts that better showcase and predict reality.

This is how science works. New findings invalidate previous findings and give us a better understanding of reality.

Ok, so let’s try and create a clear structure of experimentation, where we can drop in various concepts and understand if they are social constructs or objective facts.

My first idea for such a structure is to ask the question of what happens to a particular statement if we remove humanity from the picture?

With my example of the US dollar, obviously, in a universe where humanity was never created, there would be no United States of America, and thus no US dollar. So we can be sure that this is indeed a social construct. The value and concept of the US dollar do not exist apart from humanity, but it is created by humanity, as an abstraction to make life easier and more convenient when exchanging value.

However, this way of trying to tease apart social constructs from underlining reality is that it gets far more difficult to discuss race and gender in this way. This is because we are discussing human attributes, and so removing humans from the picture is not as straightforward as it looks.

What does “race” mean if we assume humans didn’t exist? Well, I guess we could define race in other animals, and analyze species and sub-species and see what comes out.

The other potential approach would be to try the following thought experiment:

If we were to restart society all over again, would certain concepts and ideas be naturally discovered again because they are absolutely true, regardless of our opinions?

We know that scientific textbooks in an alternate reality would be written in the same way; Newton’s laws may not be discovered by Newton, but the equations would be exactly the same. It is unlikely that the Bible and other religious texts would be written the same way, as these are just stories that have been made to explain the world and create a set of codes to live by.

I am still not sure about the right framework for this, and it needs a lot more thinking. One important aspect is our approach toward the categorization of individual items into groupings, that helps us make sense of reality.

Almost any categorization will always have fuzzy edges, where different categories meet and where an individual unit that is being measured could conceivably be in either of the two categories, or does not quite fit into either, but yet is not individual enough to merit its own categorization. This is quite natural and expected, but that does not mean that categorization is useless in itself.

The categorization of all the species in the world is very useful, it allows us to make certain predictions on how animals will behave and their characteristics based on their evolutionary biology. It would be far more difficult to understand the entire world of biology without this categorization.

But is categorization something that is emergent from human beings themselves, or is it a fundamental property of the world? After all, we can analyze the DNA of any species of the planet, without any prior knowledge of what species it is, and firmly know if this is a mammal, an insect, or a reptile — there will be clear markers of this within the DNA sample.

I am going to read more, and this will be continued!

Related Essays