A clarifying question as to whether something might—emphasis on might—be a social construction is whether it would make sense to your cat.
If you think your cat might understand it, then there’s a decent chance it has some reality in the physical world. Yes, that excludes a lot of things we take for granted, and part of the charm of a cat is that they see right through those things to physical essence.
If you think your cat wouldn’t understand it, we can go to the next question: Is this thing really a social construction?
A social construction is a thing that exists only because we—or at least some of us—agree that it does. It’s meaning is something we—or, again, at least some of us—agree upon.
This can change over time. We think we know what race is. Some people are white. Some people are Black. Some are Asian. Some are indigenous. Perhaps you would like to introduce other categories or subdivide some of those we listed. But we have a common basis of understanding. Or so we think even if it gets a little messy around the particulars, like what race is someone who’s mixed race?
Say someone walks up to you with red hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and a distinctive Irish brogue. You would probably nonetheless count this person as white. And so would I. On this, we agree.
Were we in the early part of the 19th century, we might not agree. Irish immigrants to the U.S. then were often portrayed as subhuman drunkards, a distinct race—not ethnicity, but race.
Race is the classic example of a social construction. It has a very limited biological basis. Would your cat treat you differently if you were Irish?
Over the years, I’ve come to count a number of things as socially constructed. Intelligence, for example: We claim to, but can’t really, measure it. It exists as talents that express themselves differently. How, for example, do you compare Rembrandt to Einstein? What about da Vinci to Tesla? How about the craftsman we see so rarely these days who takes a piece of wood and shapes it into something both elegant and useful?
But we claim to be able to measure this on a linear scale, the intelligence quotient. We are fooling ourselves but, notably, not our cats, who couldn’t care less.
Your cat sees food and eats it. Sees a sunny spot to nap and curls up there.
But we humans have an exchange system. We trade mysterious slips of paper or, increasingly, numbers on a computer screen, for food and a place to sleep (and for our cats to sleep). Your cat doesn’t understand any of this and instead, walks across your keyboard because you’re paying attention to those numbers.
We leave our cats behind to go off to work in exchange for those numbers. And it all means something to us. Not our cats, who may feign indifference as a means of revenge when we get back home.
The cat test doesn’t work with everything. Try giving your cat a pill or that monthly anti-flea topical. S/he doesn’t understand this is for their health. They feel a cold slime on the skin of their neck. Or something being shoved down their throat that they distinctly chose not to eat.
But medicine is a physical thing with physical effects. Those effects, or at least so we are told, occur whether we agree on them or not. Medicine is not a social construction.
The other stuff is a lot more dubious. And I count those as social constructions. The cat test is an initial clarifying question, a mere first step in the identification of a social construction.
Social constructions matter. A lot. Consider how colonizing whites have treated people of other “races” over the centuries. Those bills you have to pay. But we need to recognize them for what they are, and as having a strictly limited basis in reality.
Yes, a Black person usually—not always—has darker skin than a white. But a reason we count race as a social construction is just that, that it turns out that the differences between are less than the differences among. Some Blacks have pretty fair skin. At CSU East Bay, one of my fellow students was an American Indian with red hair, green eyes, fair skin, and freckles. Some people of different races can “pass for white” and they show us that race is a social category more than a biological one. It is a social construction with a very limited foundation in reality.
Sometimes social constructions matter too much. We use them to value some humans more than others, to enslave some, consign some to repetitive menial labor, to deny them important rights.
Take money for example. Riane Eisler has made a career of challenging the distinction between how we value caring workers—usually or traditionally women, who are our nurses, child care workers, and teachers—and how we compensate them. We often don’t think much of a taxi (or Uber or Lyft) driver until we need a ride home from a night of binge drinking. Or a plumber until a toilet stops up. Adjunct professors who have achieved the highest scholarly rank are often nonetheless paid a pittance.
In neoliberal society, as I have explained elsewhere, we are individualized and particularized as economic units of production, valued for the discrepancy between how much money we yield to the rich and the amount we cost them, pitted in competition against our fellow around the world on conditions—wages and environmental and labor regulations—over which we have no control.
Professors in the social sciences yield little the rich desire. Taxi drivers barely scrape by. Child care workers can’t be allowed to cost too much. These human beings are somehow not entitled to lives of dignity and comfort, because somehow there just isn’t enough of that social construction, money. So they may string together multiple jobs or work inhumanly long hours just to get by.
But why, really, are such human beings worth less than the rich who have led us to environmental catastrophe and the brink of nuclear armageddon? Economists claim that compensation is related to productivity and skill. They tend not to talk about executive compensation. They tend not to talk about how workers actually produce the value that the rich claim compensation for. Or how astonishingly frequently incompetence is taken as ‘managerial expertise.’
So forgive me, Richard Denniss, if I think your recent op-ed in the Guardian about how the social constructions in economics lead economists to disagree kind of misses the point. And if I suspect that cats might be smarter than we are.
- Human rights are also socially constructed, but their deprivation has important consequences, including inadequate or substandard housing, health care, and food. I refer to structural violence, as described by David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel in Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).↩
- Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).↩
- N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics, 6th ed. (Australia: South-Western Cengage, 2012).↩
- I refer, of course, to the Labor Theory of Value, which Karl Marx takes up in “Labour-Power and Capital,” in Social Theory, Charles Lemert, ed., 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 48-52.↩
- Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites (New York: Crown, 2012).↩
- Richard Denniss, “If economics is a science, why isn’t it being more helpful?” Guardian, October 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/30/if-economics-is-a-science-why-isnt-it-being-more-helpful↩