Social Justice Usage
Source: Berger, P. and T. Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
The notion that patterns of human interaction (often deemed to be normal, natural or universal) are, in fact, humanly produced and constructed by social expectation and coercion but is presented as “objective.” For example, the erroneous assumption of women being better at housework is not at all connected to their female anatomy, but to social expectations and pressures imposed on women.[NB: The above is a definition of social construction, not technically a usage by Critical Social Justice.]
Source: Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Third Edition. NYU Press, 2001, pp. 7–8.
A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by that which we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher-order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. That society frequently chooses to ignore these scientific facts, creates races, and endows them with pseudo-permanent characteristics is of great interest to critical race theory.
New Discourses Commentary
A social construct (or social construction, sometimes cultural construction when produced at the level of cultures rather than by social interactions) is some idea or understanding that is produced by human social interactions—or as a result of them—and it is meant in particular in the context where people believe there is some natural or biological reason for the phenomenon in question. As can be read above and below, there are legitimately social constructions in operation around notions most of us carry about (at least some) matters of identity, particularly sex, sexuality, gender, and race. The Theory of Social Justice tends to take a profoundly socially constructivist view, which is to say that it believes that many of these concepts are wholly or nearly wholly socially constructed (and, particularly, that they can be deconstructed – see also, postmodern – and reconstructed in other ways – see also, critical and critical theory).
Social constructions are often unhelpfully seen as a bogeyman when people discuss Social Justice because of Theory’s radical skepticism of objective knowledge and truth and its extreme reliance upon social constructivism, but social constructions are a fact of life in societies and should be understood as such. Race, for example, in the way we usually think of it and in the way that critical race Theory tends to describe it is largely a social construction. That is, the racial categories we tend to recognize—white, black, Asian, etc.—are vague and do not map neatly onto the underlying biological realities that result in those sorts of differences. There are also, as observed in the examples above and below, legitimately social constructions around gender (e.g., as above, that women are better at or better suited to housework than men are by virtue of their sex). Most obviously, the typical manners of dress for men and women clearly vary from one culture to another in certain identifiable ways, and there are good reasons to accept that many (but not all) features of how people tend to dress are socially constructed. Denying that there are significant socially constructed aspects to these features of life is not helpful for getting at truth or at explaining how Social Justice as a Theory gets the issue wrong.
Within Social Justice, the point of labeling something a social construction is to make it malleable. If something like gender is socially constructed, then a different social context would produce a different set of outputs—here: different expressions of gender, which might not constrain people so much. Thus, we find Theorists often commenting that categorization into socially constructed categories is a site and origin of oppression (see also, violence of categorization and queer Theory).
Again, they have a point (though less of one than they think), and the course of history (see also, liberalism) has largely been one of changing (or reducing) the social significance of various types of categories, often to increase human freedoms and opportunities, although at times to constrain them (see also, racism). This view, like its opposites (biological essentialism, sex essentialism, and essentialism more broadly), is often genuinely part of the story but easily taken to unrealistic extremes. Social Justice tends to be nearly wholly socially constructivist and biological essentialists tend to be nearly entirely not socially constructivist while the overwhelming majority of people recognize that social constructions are part of the story but not all of it—and that getting these details right should matter.
A particular issue with Theory with regard to its view of social constructions is that it tends to get their significance backwards in almost every case. For example, racism perpetrated on contemporary (clumsy) racial categories is largely socially constructed and was done so to justify white and European dominance during colonialism and the African Slave Trade. (NB: The underlying ethnic-group impulses that undergird this kind of racism are not only present from white Europeans to others but seem to be a nearly universal feature of prescientific human tribalism, which is a significant confusion within critical race Theory.) This sort of racism was grounded in placing social significance into the various racial categories to uphold white supremacy and Eurocentrism (see also, whiteness and blackness). The liberal societies in the West especially then spent literally centuries chipping away at that social significance, and with it the racism it creates—which was taken to an even greater extreme in postmodern thought. Critical race Theory then begins, explicitly (see Crenshaw below), by putting that social significance back into racial categories (for the purpose of doing identity politics – see also colorblind and racism-blind). This pattern is not limited to critical race Theory and manifests in the other critical theories of Social Justice (see also, queer Theory, gender studies, and postcolonial Theory).
One of the more important and alarming aspects of the Theory of Social Justice—and a place where its postmodern roots are most acutely felt—is in its view of knowledge as a social construct. There’s a considerable amount of nuance that must be untangled here, and the difficulty of the subject in this regard provides a significant unfair advantage to the social constructivists in Social Justice. Specifically, because knowledge is something that we do produce and legitimize in its status through social interactions, knowledge is a social construct—as is truth. The issue is that this isn’t an interesting observation, and it doesn’t have the significance that postmodernists and Critical Social Justice advocates believe that it does. (The philosopher Daniel Dennett has referred to such statements as “deepities,” which are statements that are trivially true but meaningfully false while having the capacity to be utterly revolutionary if they were true in the more meaningful sense. Theory is absolutely full of deepities.)
The most relevant point about knowledge is that it is somehow relevant to true statements about the world, where true statements about the world are in turn somehow in accordance with reality. The issue that critical approaches like to take—these being central to Social Justice—is to point out that what we have considered to be true statements about the world has a habit of changing as we acquire better information and develop better theories. Thus, they insist, we don’t have solid ground upon which to stand when we attempt to assert that any knowledge claim references or describes reality faithfully. Thus, we find them making statements, as below, like this one: “An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that ‘objectivity’ is desirable, or even possible.” The critical and postmodern views on knowledge is that what is considered knowledge (or true) is merely a construct of the culture and society that deemed it so—or, more specifically, the powerful people within that society (see also, Foucauldian, dominance, and marginalize). In essence, the view in Critical Social Justice is radically subjective, in that it sees subjective experience as creating biases so profound that the only knowledge claims we can make are subjective ones (see also, lived experience and ways of knowing).
Social constructivists (with regard to knowledge) are missing a number of important points here about what we consider to be knowledge. One is that for quite some time in the philosophy of science, this understanding hasn’t been mysterious. Knowledge is understood to be provisional—not absolute—and understood via the most well-established theories of the day (e.g., what Thomas Kuhn called paradigms or what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow explained in model-dependent realism). Another is that we have generally very good reasons to believe that many of the true statements we make about the world (at least the relatively simple ones, e.g., “that is a tree”) actually are likely to be true in the sense that they correspond to reality that essentially everyone would agree upon and could verify by a wide variety of experiments (looking at it, touching it, independently describing it in similar or even identical terms, etc.). That the word “tree” is an article of the English language and that statements about the tree are necessarily mediated by language or other symbolism have nothing to do with any of this (see also, Derridean). That is, what postmodern social constructivism sees as one of its most important observations is a pseudo-profound deepity of almost no philosophical and absolutely no practical worth.
So, in the technical, banal (if not vapid) sense, knowledge is a social construction, but in the more profound and meaningful sense of how people use the term, it is not. This trick is one that Social Justice turns upon over and over again.
Biological essentialism; Blackness; Colorblind; Critical; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Deconstruction; Derridean; Dis/ability; Dominance; Essentialism; Eurocentrism; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender studies; Identity; Identity politics; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Marginalize; Objectivity; Oppression; Postcolonial Theory; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Queer Theory; Race; Racism (systemic); Racism-blind; Radical; Science; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexuality; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Structuralism; Theory; Truth; Violence of categorization; Ways of knowing; West, the; White; White supremacy; Whiteness
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 7.
One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. Given that the transmission of knowledge is an integral activity in schools, critical scholars in the field of education have been especially concerned with how knowledge is produced. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that “objectivity” is desirable, or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. This term captures the understanding that all content and all means of knowing are connected to a social context.
Source: Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes For a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” , in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1993, p. 10.
It is impossible to think with any clarity about the politics of race or gender as long as these are thought of as biological entities rather than as social constructs. Similarly, sexuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual psychology.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 58–59.
Privilege is socially constructed to benefit members of the dominant group. Further, structures of privilege are not just artifacts of a racist, sexist, or classist past; privilege is an ongoing dynamic that is continually reproduced, negotiated, and enacted.
Source: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299, pp. 1296–1297.
I want to suggest that intersectionality offers a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identity and the ongoing necessity of group politics. It is helpful in this regard to distinguish intersectionality from the closely related perspective of anti-essentialism, from which women of color have critically engaged white feminism for the absence of women of color on the one hand, and for speaking for women of color on the other. One rendition of this anti-essentialist critique-that feminism essentializes the category “woman”–owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance.
One version of anti-essentialism, embodying what might be called the vulgarized social construction thesis, is that since all categories are socially constructed, there is no such thing as, say, “Blacks” or “women,” and thus it makes little sense to continue reproducing those categories by organizing around them. Even the Supreme Court has gotten into this act. In Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC, (I 10 S. Ct. 2997 (1990)) the Court conservatives, in rhetoric that oozes vulgar constructionist smugness, proclaimed that any set-aside designed to increase the voices of minorities on the air waves was itself based on a racist assumption that skin color is in some way connected it to the likely content of one’s broadcast. The Court said:
The FCC’s choice to employ a racial criterion embodies the related notions that a particular and distinct viewpoint inheres in certain racial groups and that a particular applicant, by virtue of race or ethnicity alone, is more valued than other applicants because “likely to provide[that] distinct perspective.” The policies directly equate race with belief and behavior, for they establish race as a necessary and sufficient condition of securing the preference. … The policies impermissibly value individuals because they presume that persons think in a manner associated with their race. (p. 3037, internal citations omitted)
But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people-and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful-is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged. It is, then, a project that presumes that categories have meaning and consequences. This project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them, and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies.
Revision date: 2/25/20