What Is a Social Construct?

Why Every Part of Society Is a Social Construct

Social constructs

Verywell / Laura Porter

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

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

Psychologists and social scientists study socially constructed reality in order to better understand how groups of people create social phenomena. They seek to understand how people participate in the construction and institutionalization of their perceived reality. 

This article discusses how social constructs work, why they are created, and the impact they can have.

Examples of Social Constructs

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, paper money is just paper and the coins are just metal disks.

The concept of virginity is also a social construct. It is a concept that society has decided exists and that is used to mark a before and after for the onset of sexual intercourse. However, it is not something that physically exists in the real world.

And in many cases, it is often used as a tool to judge and shame people, particularly women and girls, who are often socially devalued for being "impure" or "unchaste" if they are sexually active. The emphasis on virginity also varies depending on the community and culture.

Examples of Social Construction of Reality

Examples of the social construction of reality can be seen in many social institutions. A courthouse is just a building until a community agrees that it is a place for the practice of law. Those laws are meaningless unless groups of people agree that they exist and agree to abide by and enforce them.

Why Humans Create Social Constructs

Social construct theory says that humans create constructs in order to make sense of the objective world.

One way humans create social constructs is 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 a 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?

Social Constructs Can Change

A social construct can include values and beliefs that humans have about the construct. Humans can alter the construct as they continue to interact with the world.

Attitudes toward 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.

Gender As a Social Construct

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 are more aggressive and less nurturing, 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 sound or look like.

The “nature vs nurture” debate remains contentious when it comes to sex and gender differences. But most researchers believe that, whatever role inherent biological factors play, environmental factors are a major influence that can affect the development of the brain itself.

History of Social Constructionism

The first work to cover social constructionism was "Mind, Self, and Society" by American sociologist George Herbert Mead (1934). He argued that as social beings, we construct our own realities through our interactions with each other.

Building on this, sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann coined the term "social construction" in their 1966 book "The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge." Their work brought the idea of social constructionism to the forefront of mainstream sociology.

Since that time, social constructionism has become a widely accepted and studied theory, although it has taken on varying shades of meaning. In 2012, preeminent psychologist Dave Elder-Vass published "The Reality of Social Construction," which posited that social constructionism is compatible with—not opposed to—realist social theory, and that both viewpoints have a place in sociology.

A Word From Verywell

Social constructs exist because people agree that they exist. They play an essential role in helping people understand and interact with the world in which they live. While we often accept these constructs as inherent truths, it is important to remember that many of these "truths" are human-made and can change over time.

This includes our ideas about topics such as gender, race, and sexuality. By recognizing that our reality is socially constructed, we can work on creating a more inclusive world that better embraces the full range and diversity of human experiences.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McCarthy MM, Ball GF. Tempests and tales: challenges to the study of sex differences in the brain. Biol Sex Differ. 2011;2(1):4. doi:10.1186/2042-6410-2-4

  2. Miller G, Nowacek D. Social construction of reality. In: Ritzer G, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2018:1-8. doi:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeos1232

  3. Elder-Vass D. The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge University Press.

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.