Social constructs and scientific realities

This recent speech given by Bishop Robert Barron at a “Knights of Malta Conference” provoked me to give further thought to the whole notion of social constructs. I rarely have push-back for the good Bishop (or fully realize that any disagreement I may have is usually my own peril), but he spoke of “social constructs” as having a rather Marxist origin, and as such then, he held them up to suspicious lights at best.

Here is my current turmoil around this. Yes - I recognize from many knowledgeable voices around here that social constructs are very much a real thing. I fully accept that “Race” is entirely a social construct. There are no such things as “pure races” distinct from each other - we are all human beings from a great many different varieties of families and a great many different physical characteristics; but we are all one human race. There is no such thing as any race of “lighter skinned people” as distinct from “darker skinned people” any more than there could be a “race of tall people” and a “race of short people”. Such attempted distinctions are (or should be) embarrassing relics of past eugenics movements happily left in the dustbin of disturbing history. Scriptural theology agrees. Science agrees. Some of society still needs to catch up. So there that is.

Where this is still interesting for me, though, is around gender. Some have claimed that gender too, in its now apparent fluidity, is also nothing more than a social construct. And here it seems to me that science and theology (again?) both find themselves in alignment, but this time against the presently faddish societal notion of mere social construction. My question is this: between objective biological realities and socially built constructs, isn’t it a fairly obvious conclusion that there must be elements of both? It seems to me that nobody in their right mind would deny that we have, for better and for worse, significant accretions of social construction built up all around the traditional two genders. How could anybody but the blindest person possibly deny that? And at the same time, there is a substrate of biological reality there too. How could anybody but the most ideologically motivated deny such a reality as that?

Those are two current hot-button examples. But as they alone will probably send this thread off in hopeless political directions; let me hastily insist that my question about this is actually a more general one: What is the relationship between “social construct” and “objective reality”? Because they are often presented as opponents, and I’m suspecting it can’t always be so. The Bishop in his speech states at the end that the believer sees in God the ultimate and primal essence that precedes and indeed makes our very existence. I am here likening ‘essence’ to ‘social construct’ - only in this case it is God’s ‘social construct’, which in the believer’s view makes it our objective reality. The existentialists turned that on its head and said that existence precedes any such thing as essence, which in atheistic lights, puts the responsibility on us for our own social constructs entirely of our own making.

That all still sounds like a rather stark, either / or. A clear cut case where the believers have one side they should claim as their hill to defend. But it actually doesn’t sound so scripturally clear cut to me. For one thing, I’m not convinced that human-sourced social construction must necessarily be an anti-scriptural thing, nor even (more to the Bishop’s talk) must it always be a Marxist thing.

I think there are passages to be found which give implicit sanction to such human cultural activity as the manufacture of social constructs. Granted, what we produce is many times for evil, but not always. And it seems to me that the Marxist motivation to foment violent revolution is not the only motivator in town behind every “You need to do right by us” activist agenda or “Black Lives Matter” sign. There may be some of that Marxist element present in various activists or leaders - sure; it’s a big world that does include some scheming and violent people. But there is also a theological call for justice that calls for repentance, reconciliation, and redemption (and decidedly stands against violent revolution) that is also very much present (very much in the spirit of the too-often-forgotten MLK Jr.). And those who wish to see a revolutionary Marxist behind every door risk denying an essential thing they are scripturally compelled to do. That is one area I would love to engage the good bishop about if I had the chance.

I realize this may admittedly have too much political content to be a very long-lasting thread; but I do welcome for myself, the theological / scientific / social education on tap here, to bring me to better lights about how social constructs (such as gender) and science perhaps work together, or perhaps are at odds. How does that work?

2 Likes

I don’t understand why people act like Marxists are incapable of noticing anything true about the world.

I think it is important to understand what people mean by gender in this context, because people mean different things when they say gender. Many times you could substitute “masculinity and femininity are social constructs” and you would have the same meaning as “gender is a social construct.” For example, anthropologists have found a people group where the men sit around all day composing poetry and crying over beautiful and touching things, and the women are considered to be designed for manual labor and practical concerns and have no use for that. Those are their ideas of masculinity and femininity and in many ways they are polar opposites of Western ideas. I don’t think anyone argues that cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity are not linked socially to biological sex. If you are female, you will be socially conditioned to follow feminine norms and and if you are male, masculine ones. The debated question is to what degree those social norms are derivative of biology and to what degree they are taught. Also, even when there are noted generalizations that people make based on biological sex, to what degree does the spectrum of typical woman and typical man overlap. We make things into binary categories when it would probably be better off as some kind of 3D Venn diagram. There will always be atypical men and women and there will always be individuals who don’t fit well with their culture’s gendered generalizations.

Clearly there are biological differences between men and women and sex hormones affect us in certain ways. But the idea of 'brain gender" is not some kind of settled fact, it’s debated. (That is, that men and women’s brain chemistry and neural networking works fundamentally differently) Also, since the argument for brain gender relies on how sex hormones affect brain development, it allows for atypical cases where hormone abnormalities lead to brain gender and biological secondary sex traits that don’t match. And in any psychological or sociological experiment, it can be impossible to tease out the nature from the nurture. Are men in the US biologically primed to be more decisive and assertive and women more empathetic and communicative or is that how they are socialized? What biological difference would account for it and how come it’s not universally observed in every culture?

Social constructs are real. They don’t mean something that exists “all in your mind.” What do you mean by objective reality? Something that cannot be deconstructed and explained in terms of sociology, culture and religion? There is reality and then there is our conception of reality. All of our concepts and the language we use to describe them are human constructs. That doesn’t make them meaningless or untethered to reality.

The crux of Marxist thought is seeing the world through the lens of power dynamics and the struggle for power. This is actually a useful lens for understanding some things and one that, for example, was used by Black Christian abolitionists and civil rights workers who never read a page of critical theory in their life. It doesn’t take a Marxist to notice that some groups have unequal power and privilege and some groups are oppressed and there are social constructs that further that power and oppression. And you can use that lens to try to understand a particular situation without insisting it is the only lens through which all of reality must always be viewed or that every single human interaction can be explained in terms of power imbalances.

If you are interested, here is a my go to essay from Esau McCaulley about the intersection of CRT, civil rights activism, and Christian theology (NT prof at Wheaton, Anglican priest, has a hot new book out called Reading the Bible While Black that you will be hearing about)

10 Likes

I was going to say something like this, but you said it much better and said much more besides.

1 Like

Thanks for that, Christy - both your response and also the link.

The article helped me better craft my response to so many concerned (and better settle some of this in my own mind too.) For so many who are either suspicious of or outright hostile toward social justice movements, the “Marx” label is a convenient dismissal tool. And as I have no stake in defending Marx, I’m happy to highlight to them the actual gaps or distance between Marx and so much of social justice causes. So I really love the article’s reminder that Marx did not originate any of this, and that Biblical liberation for the oppressed is an age-old theme that long supersedes anything he may have added to it, and in fact (I would argue in it’s biblical form) repudiates the violence that is apparently inherent with Marx’s approach. That said, I also appreciate your reminder, Christy, that even if some influential figure is now seen in evil lights (perhaps even rightly so) - that doesn’t mean all their insights were wrong or without value.

From the Anglican Compass article:

Our dialogue partners are those who contend that orthodoxy is inherently oppressive to people of color and women; and that the only path forward is a deconstruction of traditional belief. In other words, we live at the intersection of orthodoxy and what many critics of CRT fear.

And on the other (crossroad) of that intersection are those who contend that social justice concerns oriented toward the needy and oppressed are somehow in tension with or opposed to orthodox faith. I live in that intersecting world (as I suspect most of us do in one way or another now.) I think it’s helpful to be able to take social constructs seriously as real things without that being perceived as a denial of physical realities.

By ‘objective reality’ I was thinking of something not just independent of my own mind, but even having some independent life in a ‘trans-cultural’ sort of way - that is across cultures and time. So it is fascinating to hear of anthropologists looking for common threads across all cultures and noticing things (about masculinity and femininity) that change (or do not change!) drastically between cultures. I do continue to see how teasing apart the nature and nurture (socialization) question is probably the proverbial Gordian Knot.

But in any case; I’m starting to feel some fresh mental space now for very real social constructs existing alongside and interacting with biological and environmental realities.

5 Likes

Finally got to finish listening to the Bishop’s speech and found it interesting. Hope to get to Christy’s link too.

My over riding reaction to his summary of these four philosopher’s thinking is how rash is their assumption that objective truth and value is really a sham perpetrated by the powerful just because we find it has taken a myriad of forms in the past. Just because we find politicians sometimes do pass off alternative facts and distort vales, does not imply that facts and values are ultimately arbitrary. Of course I also don’t think the existence of objective truth and values depends on the existence of God. Even if it did one might still wonder whether the Catholic church or any other has the final word regarding truth and values. The individuals who make up religious institutions are as prone to flaws and idiosyncrasies as are politicians. So the choice can’t simply between anything goes regarding truth and values or else one must submit to religious institutions.

2 Likes

I think both race and sex as only social constructs are absurd – at least by this definition from google:

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.

I often make that point that we should not confuse linguistic categories with absolute realities because they are often defined by arbitrary lines in the sand. This applies to most things particularly to race and yes even to gender to some degree, though the latter depends on what we mean by gender. But it simply isn’t true that these distinctions do not exist in objective reality or that they are purely a result of human interaction. There are measurable genetic differences even if the lines dividing one from another is not always so clear cut.

Absolutely, it is the case that gender roles are almost entirely a social construct though they have existed long enough for there to be a little evolutionary adaptation to them. Gender roles are all about social interactions whether about family responsibilities, sexual relationships, or sometimes even expected interests and personality. So there is no getting around the fact of these being a social construct. Because of this you can even say that in some sense gender is even more of a social construct than race… unless you separate gender roles from actual gender (which some might do because they don’t think they should be confused). All of this goes to show that these things are deep waters of complexity and a big part of it all is the question of how we want things to be rather than just how things are.

1 Like

One of my best friends in med school was a Marxist who asserted that Jesus was one of his persuasion. To read some of the Gospels, where the last will be first, and the first last, along with Paul’s and others’ judgments against the rich, makes me wonder sometimes!
I remember reading an account by C S Lewis’ wife that she was an idealistic Communist in her youth–that in her mind, the Communists were the salvation of the world, and the ones who would beat the Nazi Fascists.
I think it was the Dutch Communists who first struck on the shipyards in defense of the Jews who were being taken away to concentrations camps–and many paid for it by being shot for their rebellion.
I am looking forward to listening to your link. Thank you for your illuminating conversation, as always.

If someone got more info, it would be appreciated.

From what I read in a brief internet search, the term “social construct” first appeared in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, co-written by Peter Ludwig Berger, a Protestant Christian theologian and sociologist. In the book, the author acknowledges that his sources of influence included Karl Marx along with Emile Durkheim (the only two names that I recognized). I think Robert Barron’s comment that solely attributes social constructionism’s origins to Marxism is misleading and simplistic.

Although many people claimed that BLM is Marxist, the dectractors are being more polemical than analytical and probably know little of Marxism. (I myself do not know much too, but I try to have to some objectivity.) The founders of BLM did call themselves Marxist—I take their self-described claims seriously—but I do not think their movement has much Marxist substance. As noted by PolitiFact, BLM supports gender identity politics which may be considered by orthodox Marxists to be “bourgeois”, “idealistic” (as opposed to Marxist materialism), and post-modern. Politics based on identities, which are socially constructed, are treated by orthodox Marxists as something that distract from the material struggles of the working class. Most BLM supporters like most of the general population do not have worldviews informed by a coherent ideology anyways. I think it is completely acceptable for Christians to join the movement without agreeing on every point with its founders. After all, we had Christians and reformed Marxists joining forces in Solidarity, a Polish labor union that resisted Soviet rule.

I agree with basically everything you say, though I am unsure about your description about Marxism mainly because I do know enough about it. I think I know enough to add this caveat, however: I criticize people like my cousin who reduces the Marxist view of history to a power struggle because that would let its critics would apply their definition to any movement they oppose, even anachronistically. Martin Luther King, Jr. may as well be a Marxist. (A lot of white people did think he was an evil Communist threatening to destroy the American way of life.) But this refusal to recognize the inequality of power often makes the church part of the unjust social order.


2 Likes

I think Christy already did a pretty good ‘take down’ of that particular definition. So whatever official status that definition may freshly have, it isn’t my own working definition of it any more.

1 Like

I agree, although I don’t think the position that race exists as a genetic reality meets with approval here.

But once we start to wish away the generic differences of race, then it becomes easier to wish away the differences in gender.

Maybe age will be the next thing we can wish away, and a 10-year-old can self-identify as an adult to buy beer.

1 Like

To some degree we are right to “wish them away” (i.e. ignore them) for some very good pragmatic social reasons. Paying too much attention to them causes many problems especially among the not too well educated. But we cannot ALWAYS ignore these differences as any medical doctor will inform you.

Well, that seems to me to be doing a wrong thing for a good reason.

It is like when a B-52 lost a hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean after a collision with a KC-135 tanker, and many Navy ships were out scouring the waters for them. When a US Navy officer was asked about all those ships in plain view, he asked “what ships?”

He had a good reason to deny what was obvious to anyone with eyes, but his denials were not credible.

I definitely use sex, gender, and XX vs XY and it’s variations, interchangeably. Even by saying, a “
masculine woman” or “ tom boy” denotes a that masculinity has a definition that’s observable.

I concur. And all the more so after all the input I’ve received here. And I think the Bishop might probably agree as well since this particular speech did not address social construction as a topic in its own right, but only as a passing mention. He isn’t one to deny nuance and complexity.

1 Like

I would thjink that by most definitions, the Christian faith is a social construct. It is based on a Covenant between God and humanity. The “old” covenant of Judaism is based on the Torah or Law. The “new” NT covenant is based on Jedud Christ the beginning and end of our faith.

In terms of race it does not deny that race including the “white” race is not a social construct, differences do not indicate inferiority. The world in the t5ime of Jesus was divided very clearly between Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, wach group thought that it was justified in discriminating against the other for very good reasons. Jesus said No. God does not make humans to be all the same, but to be diverse.

The same with male and female. They are not the same, but they are equal in that we are all created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26-27, if you ne4ed to check it out. I have recently learned that a vcry prominent evangelical theologian has counterfeited the doctrine of the Trinity by saying that Jesus the 2nd Person was subordinate tot he Father during His ministry and even now as He rules with eh Father and the Spirit, so it nullifies the equality of male and female.

Christianity is a social contract based on the Logos. Jesus Christ, which is also the basic of the structure of the universe, See John 1:1 and following.

Reply

I do not think anyone here is arguing that sex is a social construct. We are talking about gender in the sense of femininity/masculinity as a social construct (for example, the idea that pink is for girls and light blue is for boys which we see in “gender reveal parties”).

3 Likes

I don’t think anyone actually really pushes that. Sure we mostly don’t let little boys wear dresses and play with barbies. That’s mostly because we are trying to raise boys to be men and within our species there are certain things we see as typical for males or females regardless of the culture, nation, or time period for the most part.

https://biblehub.com/greek/3120.htm

Even if it’s a social construct, the same can be said for sin. Sin is a social construct but we still believe it’s one set up by God. So I take the “effeminate “ verse to mean that within each society there is a typical standard of masculinity vs femininity that seems to be fairly common and that within that we are expected by God to adhere to it. God seems to not want me to wear a crop top with a bra strap showing walking around in high heels as a guy. Which is good because I don’t want too. I also raise my son up knowing that’s female clothing and he can’t do it either.

Like with anything there will always be mentalities that’s either puts greater or lesser significance on things that don’t actually seem to break it. Within out society it seems normal for both sexes to shave their body. We have men in gyms who do it and we have people like firefighters who often do it and so on. We also have women who play sports like football that’s fairly common. I think each generation knows what’s actually expected socially and that a God expects us to follow that. If I was to go back in time 4,000 years to some middle eastern nation and was able to observe them it would be clear who, if there was, a effeminate guy walking around.

In listening to Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” he alludes to Stephen Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” I’ve not read it, but Haidt uses it to illustrate how progressives deny some inborn tendencies in order strengthen their case for what they desire for improvement (I have some sympathy with the blank slate idea for that reason). Has anyone read this book by Pinker, or finished Haidt’s book enough to comment? Thanks.

I did finish Haidt’s book (and got a lot out of it) - there is another thread pretty much already dedicated I think to that discussion. I’ve never read Pinker.

Actually … that is exactly where the social construct concept challenges our cultural condtionings (and successfully so I think). You’ve made it clear what you pack into the idea of masculinity and femininity, but you are speaking from within your own social construct. And I’m pretty sure it is not universally shared across cultures and time that men don’t play with certain toys or what sort of dress men or women have. “Masculinity” and “Femininity” are, I suggest, precisely where our culturally conditioned worlds of “social construct” are in full effect. That we have certain physical / biological realities associated with our sex (across cultures and times) is what is less in question here. But what we pack into the descriptors “masculine” or “effeminate” is much more an open book and where our constructs come to dominate - as you so ably showed when you shared what you and presumably your parents and your culture of origin pack into those terms.

[Perhaps it is safe to say that when you hear the expression: “Real men do/don’t …” or “The Godly woman …”; you can probably rest assured, what follows that will be a social construct in full force. And I do not mean that as a ‘put-down’ as so many have tried to make the phrase. Social constructs that may be time-honored within a given culture are not necessarily bad things - though they might be! They are just realities of a cultural sort rather than a biologically constrained sort. And they may quite well still be “of God” even as social constructs - perhaps especially so. To think that God’s decree must only be imposed on cultures through biology or hard-wired reality, and never through culturally contextualized conditioning, is a curious limitation to try to put on God - and one that the scriptures themselves would quickly dispense with.]

2 Likes

Where it really gets nasty is when these cultural fetishes are pushed over into the idea of being born with sexual preference, which is one of the reasons I am opposed to the latter, at least as absolute. I think that born sexual preference idea is largely a posture adopted in reaction to the even more harmful notion that sexual preference is a deliberate choice, bad habit, or something some people just got wrong and therefore ought to fix it. I personally think “sexual preference” is largely or most often conditioned by our first sexual experiences and relationships to the sexes. It is the “bad” labeling which is without objective support and we have a hard enough time fighting the habits which are really destructive of our well being without others added to the list without good reason. If like being vegan this is something you feel strongly about then your own life is the canvas on which you can paint with that brush, while leaving other people well enough alone.

The whole sexual landscape/arena is complex and troublesome enough without people pushing you one way or another. The genetics-environment-choice causality is also a rather complex interrelated and highly individual mix, so I see no reason not to credit it if someone chooses to say their preference is genetic. Philosophically I find the whole idea of “sexual preference” to be rather horrible – cannibalistic. I really think this should be about love and not just casual entertainment treating people like so many flavors of ice cream. And I would classify the predatory character of many sexual behaviors as bad habits and sinful.

2 Likes

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.