Catching The Phoenix:
The everyday use of language creates the illusion that words point to well-defined things or concepts, but they often do not. If a carpenter disassembles a table to make a chair, at what point does the table "end" and when does the chair "emerge"? The world is a continuum, a spectrum that isn’t inherently neatly divided and labeled for us. Words in a particular culture serve to label specific points on this spectrum such that meaningful exchange of information between individuals is possible, and communication is the process that we as humans use to standardize our interpretation of the world such that it becomes possible to share ideas. As this interpretation is standardized, it is laden with assumptions about how the world behaves and how different phenomena are related. Communication is therefore the dynamic process through which social reality is constructed and sustained such that a group of individuals come to share the same worldview and can coexist. The worldview and assumptions of a culture evolve through time, become encoded in the language, which in turn reinforce the assumptions of that culture.
The phrase “social construction of reality” doesn’t imply that there exists no reality independent of human perception, but instead describes the process through which our perception and interpretation of reality is inevitably colored by the assumptions of our culture as encoded in our language (Searle, 1997). The impossibility of communicating complex ideas without the use of a language forces us to conform to the assumptions of the language that we speak in. As soon as you use a word, you have bought into the assumptions of that word, and how it relates to other words and concepts. As soon as you speak in a language, you have tacitly accepted its assumptions and worldview. For example, the brain-teaser involving a boy, his father and the surgeon was difficult to answer because people were bound by the gender-biased assumption of the words (which of course was encoded by cultural expectations).
Let’s explore a particular socially-constructed category in more depth. Homosexuality is a recent Western concept (Foucault, 1980) unique among the conceptualization of male-male sexual bonds of other cultures in several ways. Where the western concept of homosexuality assumes a life-long predisposition, other cultures have typically construed male-male sexual bonds as temporary phases, as in the initiation rites of tribes in New Guinea or ancient Crete, or age-based relationships – such as in ancient Greece. An even more profound uniqueness of the Western concept of homosexuality is revealed when it is contrasted with how male-male sexual and romantic bonds were treated in Imperial China where several male emperors were known to have had male harems and favorite male concubines, and also where male prostitution (for male clients) was prevalent up to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The reason why there was no word for homosexuality in Chinese was because it was never seen as a defining or integral part of a person’s identity. Male-male sexual and romantic bonds were construed as relationships between two people as opposed to a psychological essence that defined either person. Moreover, these same-sex bonds were seen as a perfectly acceptable and natural way of life in Imperial China (Hinsch, 1992).
The Assumptions of Homosexuality
Part of the reason why gay culture exists is as a counter-reaction to the oppression and marginalization of homosexuals over the past 150 years in Western culture, but the reason why that marginalization occurred in the first place was because a special category of life-long sexual preferences was created and defined as psychologically aberrant. There are two assumptions that were embedded in that definition and both are problematic. First of all, the concept of homosexuality, and more importantly our conceptualization of sexual orientation, assumes a life-long predisposition. The general sense is that if someone figures out that they are gay today, then they must have been gay when they were born, and they will be gay for the rest of their life. But there is simply not much empirical data that supports the position that sexual preference is a life-long predisposition that never wavers or changes because there are such strong social norms to identify with being straight, gay or bisexual. It is also unclear how many people would choose to have sex with both genders if there were not cultural norms for sexual preferences for one gender. Think about it this way. When someone realizes they are strongly attracted to Asians as sexual partners, they do not have to deal with the anxiety of wondering whether they will only like Asians for the rest of their life because there is no strong social norm for racial preference. But when someone thinks that they are attracted to someone of the same gender, they are suddenly forced to deal with a life-long decision.
Secondly, the concept of homosexuality has come to define an integral part of an individual’s identity in a way that other equally well-defined terms do not. For example, straight people do not think that being straight is an integral part of their identity. In personality psychology, we know that basic traits such as introversion can be measured accurately during childhood and are fairly stable over a life-time, but introverts do not typically report that introversion is an integral part of their identity. No freshmen at college will introduce themselves by saying, “I am an introvert. I realized I was an introvert when I was 13”. There is no Introvert Pride Day, nor is there anything referred to as Introvert Culture. Again, Gay Pride is a counter-reaction to a past injustice, but that injustice was itself created by a socially constructed category that was purposefully meant to be alienating.
Alternatives to Our Conceptualization of Human Sexuality
Western culture chose to conceptualize and divide sexuality in a unique and arbitrary way and there are indeed many other equally plausible ways of categorizing sexuality. For starters, without the assumption of a universal life-long sexual preference, we could have defined people as being “rigid and set” in their sexual preference versus people who are “flexible and adaptable”. We could have defined people as being attracted to people of their same ethnicity or someone of a different ethnicity (which gay men also do interestingly enough – eg. “rice queens”). The Western conceptualization of sexual orientation also conflates physical attraction with romantic attraction. It isn’t clear at all whether the two must be correlated, or whether one can be physically attracted to both genders but only romantically attracted to one. For that matter, it also isn’t clear whether some people are more susceptible to romantic attraction (as in limerence defined by Tennov, 1979) than others.
The concept of homosexuality is particularly misleading when it is applied to historical figures who lived in cultures or time periods where homosexuality was not defined. For example, it isn’t clear whether Chinese emperors who had favorite male concubines were gay - because in a culture where strong social norms for sexual preference did not exist, it could very well have been the case that favoritism among concubines arose out of sexual skills or features of physical anatomy rather than gender. In a contemporary example, are priests who molest altar boys gay or do altar boys become the targets of sexual predation because of the structure and context of priesthood? And for that matter, if a man who is aroused by homoerotic material uses reaction formation (one of Freud’s defense mechanisms) and acts hyper-masculine and marries to avoid being suspected of being gay, but has never had sex with another man – what is his sexual orientation? More importantly, is he a product of the social construction of homosexuality?
Answering Critiques from Biological Determinists
Biological determinists might argue that socially constructed categories are driven by evolutionarily adaptive cognitive frameworks. For example, there is a large literature on how people identify certain traits as being universally attractive. The reality, however, is that human nature appears to be adaptive as well. Pale and tanned skin go in an out of fashion. Plumpness was attractive in the medieval ages, while slim figures are attractive in contemporary western culture. One can argue there is a human need for social status, and a need to conform to social norms, but it is as a culture that we decide what those social norms are. For example, diamonds are actually not particularly rare or in any short supply, but the specifics of the socially-constructed importance of a fairly common stone in the ritual of courtship in western culture could not have been predicted by evolutionary psychology. Even if certain facets of human behavior could be explained solely by adaptive biological mechanisms, the problem is that the specificities of social norms and assumptions cannot be predicted by evolutionary psychology, and it is also hard for biologically deterministic theories to explain cross-cultural differences. And as long as those differences exist, there is room for the social construction of reality.
Some may argue that the near certainty of a gay gene necessitates the categorization for “gay” and justifies gay culture and identification with being gay, but there are many other genetically-determined traits that we don’t care to label in common usage. For example, there is no common word for people born without a sense of smell or taste the way we have words for the blind and the deaf, and colorblind people do not get together to talk about how the world of art has marginalized them. And as mentioned before, there are also genetically-determined traits such as introversion that people simply do not identify with as an integral part of their identity or create a culture from. Moreover, if biological frameworks and constraints determine our lexicon and worldview, it’s not clear why there was no word for homosexuality in Imperial China, or why it was suddenly construed as aberrant and pathological in Victorian England. In essence, the social construction of reality is focused on how we arbitrarily choose certain things in the spectrum of reality and construct them as problems or points of interest out of the millions of equally viable candidates for those positions.
We divide reality arbitrarily typically to create normative categories: right -vs- wrong, acceptable -vs- unacceptable, good -vs- bad, as well as to create ingroups and outgroups. Tacit in every language is the construction of a social reality that frames individuals and concepts as inside or outside the boundaries of social norms. This is why it's dangerous to buy into the assumptions of a language and culture without trying to examine its own biases. The irony of gay culture is that there is an emerging sense of the correct way of being gay - exemplified by TV shows like "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy". There is a certain way a gay man should dress, certain name brands that are favored, certain ways hair should be cut and styled, and certain skills and mannerisms that they should have.
This discussion is not meant to offend individuals who identify as being gay as much as a way to think about the boundaries and assumptions built into our culture’s conceptualization of sexuality and sexual orientation. We, as members of a Western culture, feel compelled to believe that our construction of sexual orientation and creating the label “gay” shows our progressiveness, but what if the oppression of homosexuals was a purely Western construction? What if individuals, including several emperors, who engaged in male-male sexual and romantic bonds in Imperial China were accepted as normal and natural? The marginalization of a socially-constructed group is what promotes identification with that group in a counter-reaction (such as blacks or gays), but in fact, the existence of those labels signify problematic divisions of an arbitrary reality and is mainly used to oppress certain groups of individuals. The irony is that a world where people do not identify or have labels for “straight” and “gay” would be a far more liberating culture to live in because it implies those differences are accepted as part of a natural variation of human nature and not an aberration that requires a special label.
Foucault, Michel (1980). The History of Sexuality:
End Note (6/17/2012)
The contemporary discussion over gay rights tends to be very polarized and centers on often simplistic arguments from both sides. It is easy to deconstruct religious arguments from the right, but even for those of us who argue for gay rights, there is a tendency to stick to black-or-white sound bite arguments. For example, one of these arguments is that homosexuality is largely or entirely determined by genetics/biology and is a fixed trait throughout a person's life. Any deviance from this message, such as the original article above, is perceived as a threat and construed to be an anti-gay message.
This is nonsense and counterproductive for several reasons: