The Magic of Making and Unmaking Reality

Social Constructs are kind of “magic”. We conjure new realities by weaving our stories together and making new sacred texts to map what we call “common sense” but to others is even beyond imagination.

I seem to hear a lot about “social constructs” these days. Often this is in relation to gender activism. “Gender is a social construct,” I hear. And that’s true, it is.

It was philosopher Judith Butler who open the door to this form most of us. Macat do an okay introductory video to her ideas of gender as a social construct here.

Many of us now take for granted that either our understand of gender, or gender itself are not biological (like sex) but rather based on a set of mutually agreed, evolved and evolving ideas about human being.

this is not a blogpost about gender, that’s just an example. It’s a post about the very idea of social constructs and our own agency in generating, performing, or resisting them.

But gender is a good example. We see it conjured up by the author of the second version of cre

ation in Genesis. We see it vanish – deconstructed by St Paul.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

A social construction is a shared idea about what is “normal”. It’s like a set of rules. Some endure longer than others: some are lost, some are fought against and some alter over time. None of them stay the same forever.

By analogy, in a game of chess a queen can move diagonally in any direction but a knight has this weird “L” shaped thing that it does. There’s no reason in nature for this but we all agree that this is right.

It’s easy to see a social construction in a chess game because we live outside of the board and look down on it from above.

It’s harder to see the social constructions in our own society. As the Chinese proverb goes: “If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish!”

I agree that there are such things as social constructions. Of course I do. But what I want to challenge is the phrase, “It’s just a social construction.”

But what I want to challenge is the phrase, “It’s just a social construction.”

If there are social constructions everywhere and in all societies then there’s a good case for saying that having an agreed set of norms, mores, values, and rules is natural and even good.

If all social constructions are provisionally held and bound by the ever-shifting sands of time and context then we can also say that changes in them are also natural and even good.

One profoundly pervasive social construction is the idea of “the individual”; that such as thing as an individual human being is a “fact” is actually a social construct in contemporary western societies.

There is no such thing, in material reality, as “the individual”; it is a social construct which has its pros and cons.

One of the upsides of the idea of the individual is the defense of individual rights. Like the right to assert ones own gender identity.

One of the downsides of the idea of the individual is that the an individual can leverage the whole meaning of our social universe into a new construct based on their individual experience.

There is no such thing as an individual experience; it’s another social construction.

There is no such thing as an individual experience; it’s another social construction.

Taking again, the example of gender. I have no doubt that the idea that there are “men and women and that’s that” is on its way out. Realising gender is a social construct frees us up to re-imagine it in new, exciting and potentially liberating ways.

But those of us who embrace this change need to also hear, as well as challenge and agitate, those who fear it.

The answer to the question: How do we free ourselves from gender-stereotypes cannot be simply that individuals free them selves from the burden of social constructions. Brave souls will pass this way but it’s painful and frustrating to say the least.

We might recognise, with thankfulness, what was good about the social construction that is losing its power – as well as what is oppressive about it – in order to move on to the next one, recognising that social construction too, in a way that means something to society.

Our interactions with one another are like textile mills where we weave new social constructions into being. Some factories are more productive than others, some are sweat shops and some produce some shoddy but popular ideas of what is ‘natural’.

We need more factories of social being that weave together peoples experiences in a way that generates social constructions that work for the common good.

Churches can be places of story telling where this happens – hotbeds of re-conjuring and re-enchanting the world with holy awe and reverence for one another as gift. Growing churches to be diverse places where people can safely tell their story is a work of God.

Growing churches to be diverse places where people can safely tell their story is a work of God.

Without this work, the only construction we’ll have left is “the individual” and then the weaving will all happen to us rather than through us. And that would suck.

It reminds me of the quote by post-modernist Jean-Francois Lyotard: “If there are no rules, there is no game.” And where would be the fun in that!

By Keith Hebden

This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect a shared view of the membership. 

Keith is the author of Re-enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and Social Change

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