Definition of Social Construct

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A social construct is something that exists not in objective reality, but as a result of human interaction. It exists because humans agree that it exists.


Some examples of social constructs are countries and money. It is easier to see how countries could be social constructs than it is to see how money is a social construct. Countries would not exist were it not for human interaction. Humans have to agree that there is such a thing as a country and agree on what a country is.

Without that agreement, there could be no countries.

Money also would not exist without human interaction. If we think about objective reality, we might think that the money does exist. After all, we can touch the paper or the coins. However, unless humans agree on what the paper or the coins represent and can be used for, the paper money is just paper and the coins are just metal disks.

Why Humans Create Constructs

Social construct theory says that humans create constructs in order to make sense of the objective world. One way humans do this by structuring what they see and experience into categories. For example, they see people with different skin colors and other physical features and "create" the social construct of race. Or they see tall plants with very thick stalks that branch out at the top and have leaves growing on them and "create" the construct of tree.

Those two examples help illustrate how humans use social constructs and how different some social constructs are from other social constructs.

Do trees exist outside of the social construct? If we didn't agree on the construct of a tree, would we see those plants any differently? What about race? Does race exist outside of the social construct?  Would we treat people of different colors differently if we did not have the social construct of race?

Constructs Can Change

Those two examples help illustrate that a social construct can include values and beliefs that humans have about the construct. Humans can alter the construct as they continue to interact. Attitudes towards those of different skin colors have changed over the last 100 years and they continue to change. The construct of race still exists, but what the construct means has changed.

Another example of a social construct that has changed over time is the concept of gender. A little more than 50 years ago, people believed that men and women had specific gender-related roles determined by biology. Women are more nurturing so they were best suited to be mothers who stayed at home to raise children. Men were more aggressive and less nurturing and were best suited to go out to work and provide for the family. We don't believe that anymore about men and women.

The social construct of gender illustrates the nature/nurture debate about human behavior. If gender is only a social construct, it means that men and women act differently only because society has dictated their roles to them.

They have learned how they should behave and what they should like. However, research discussed in Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature suggests that boy babies and girl babies are born different, that there is a nature side to the differences.

Also Known As: Social Construction

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