Originally published: 15.01.14
Feminists talk a lot about social constructs. A while ago, I did a poll asking what people thought ‘social construct’ meant. The answers were interesting and varied: “it’s the stuff that isn’t ‘real’”; “social conventions”; “ideas that constitute your frame of reference for understanding the world”; and so on. This post is my attempt to share how I tend to think about social constructs, in the hopes that someone might find it interesting.
TRIGGER WARNING: LONG
I. Patriarchy Is Socially Constructed
Culture is not special to humans. Most social species have culture. One way to think of culture is: any information and behaviour that is transmitted and maintained in a population by social learning, as opposed to biological inheritance. A noticable feature of lots of culture is convergence: it makes sure that guppies all go the same route to the same feeding spot; that capuchins get the right kinds of rocks to bash nuts with; that meerkats learn how to kill scorpions and not get their asses handed to them; that migrating birds learn the right route; that songbirds don’t completely embarrass themselves with tone-deaf nonsense, and so on. It’s a set of information that members of a population all get access to, and it tends to coordinate the behaviour of the population. What makes human culture different from that of guppies is its sheer scale, richness and complexity.
The general principles of evolutionary theory are useful for the study of all kinds of stuff, including culture. All you really need is a system of inheritance (like social learning), some variation in what is inherited (like different flightpaths or birdsongs, basically any variation among cultural products), and a meaningful difference in that variation; some things will be ‘better’ than others, according to whatever parameters relating to the environment and the task, etc. So when you ask why a cultural product looks the way it does, you refer to the task at hand and the resources that are available to help solve the problem across the organism and the environment.
There are a couple of important ways in which cultural evolution differs from biological evolution. The first is that large changes acquired over an organism’s lifetime (say, a change in migration route) get passed on to the next generation; physically acquired changes like a lost limb or a tattoo aren’t hereditary (though epigenetics challenges this dominant paradigm in a way I don’t care about here). The second big difference, particularly with human culture, is that we have a limited number of genetic parents, but a huge number of ‘cultural parents’ from whom we acquire information. The size of human societies, and the steady increase in ways to communicate information between lots of people, mean this difference is pretty vast in terms of quantity and complexity. Together, these differences mean that cultural evolution is a whole lot faster, and that human culture is phenomenally more cumulative.
We can look at human cultural products in the same way as guppy routes and capuchin rocks, it’s just a lot more complex. One of the reasons it’s more complex is that our culture acts as the environment for new, emerging cultural variants; how an idea relates to other ideas will affect how ‘successfully’ it is passed on. I think that’s the sort of thing meme people study. Anyway, let’s apply this tool for thinking about culture to something like Grandma’s Secret Pizza Recipe. Usually, Grandma’s Secret Pizza Recipe is heavily guarded, because it’s been passed down through a whole bunch of generations. Let’s pretend you could even trace it back to when people first ground wheat into flour or whatever. Over all that time, the particular dough composition, the secret sauce, all that stuff has been filtered through the family and refined with each batch, made better as more ingredients came into the human grasp. It’s a process that can’t easily be replicated, and makes Grandma’s pizza taste a bit better than everyone else’s pizza. At each time-step, the pizza accumulates more features that make it better:
Now we can add another factor of selection that helps to filter the information: at each generation, the people who get to decide what makes a good pizza are the biggest bullies in each family. The deciding vote is made by the Man Of The House. Imagine this happened over however many generations it took for pizza evolve from totally-gross wheatmeal into glorious capricciosa. Our pizza would, by a simple process whereby men have the final word, come to reflect the tastes of the men in a given chain of people, and not that of the women. The men wouldn’t need to design a pizza that women don’t like. It would just so happen that the pizza didn’t work for the women, and the men would be unlikely to see anything wrong with the pizza. So far, so whatever. Pizza is pizza and it probably tastes great for everyone regardless. But let’s say we applied this same process to other cultural products like labour divisions; social organisation; governmental structure; economic values; legislative decisions; funding priorities; work policies; basically everything about human society. We can also apply it to other kinds of social products that we inherit – things like language, or the attitudes we have toward other populations, or the ideas we inherit about males and females. The emergent outcome of all these different, male-skewed products is the locked-in cage of Patriarchy. The earliest unequivocal evidence of symbolic culture in humans dates back to 50,000 years ago. We can assume that the interactions of men and women have shaped human culture since at least then (though it probably stretches back to the fringes of our humanity). Patriarchal culture is the end product of innumerable deciding votes made over the entire span of human history, by innumerable anonymous, unwitting social architects – almost none of whom were women until the last 150 years. The result is a social order that can in no way reflect the lives, realities or needs of women, unless they in some way pertain to those of men. This system serves men by design.
II. Gendered Behaviour Is A Different Sort Of Thing Than Pizza And Government
(or: how men learn to act like they’re in charge)
All of this inherited social structure is what feminists and other political theorists refer to as “social constructs”. One fundamental tenet of feminism is that Gender Is A Social Construct. What this means for us here, then, is that Gender is a set of behaviours we acquire through social learning. Like the birds who learn migration paths, Gender is continued and propagated through our demonstration of the same behaviour. One proposal for how to fix things is to simply choose, as individuals, to change our behaviour. For many, this is where the story ends.
But there are several questions left unanswered: why did men have more of a say than women in the first place? Why has male domination happened across almost every culture on Earth? Why do these cultural stereotypes have the universal features of violent men and nurturing women? Is it innate? How can it be innate when so many people, especially women, are disaffected with gender? If it’s not innate, what do these universals mean? It is all well and good to say these social constructs exist, and that ideas accumulate over time – but where did they come from? How does the transmission chain start? In other words: what is the root? Leaving an analysis of social constructs to the realm of ideas alone does not answer any of these questions. These social constructions still need to be grounded in material reality. This is the domain of materialism and radical feminism.
One special thing we’ve established about human cultural transmission is that it is cumulative, like a snowball rolling down a hill in a blizzard. We can illustrate this with another cultural system: language. It seems so natural that it feels hardwired in our brains. Language, too, has been subject to cumulative cultural processes; from “ug” to “antidisestablishmentarianism”, language continually changes to be both maximally learnable and useful. The increase in systematic language structure over time is attributable to the fact that it has been altered – unconsciously – by speakers through the generations. These changes build up into something more structured. No one person sat down and designed a language in the same way as we design clothes – it’s pure cumulative cultural evolution. Despite this, we learn to speak with such ease that you don’t need to instruct babies to do it; it’s a highly specialised instance of implicit social learning. All languages exhibit this same highly structured learnability. And yet, if I had a baby and sent it off to Japan, it would grow up speaking Japanese rather than English. So we know that languages exhibit universal structure, but that they’re also culturally determined. There are a lot of broad parallels here with Gender; the details of gendered behaviour vary across cultures, but the upshot is the same: male dominance and female subordination. It is at once culturally determined and universal. How do we reconcile these two facts?
For language – and since this can be abstracted to a mathematical proof, other systems of the same type – the answer is in weak biological biases. Simple, small biological differences become amplified by culture. So, if you have a critical mass of individuals in a population that prefer a particular language structure, the language will take on that structure. Others acquire it, and – once the cultural system has started to replicate itself through transmission – it amplifies according to the small push it’s been given in a particular direction.
What does this mean for Gender? Several things. The first is that the bias doesn’t have to be exhibited by all members of a population to become dominant in a cultural system; just a critical mass of them. This means that, if enoughwomen are encumbered with pregnancy and child-rearing such that they cannot participate in public life, culture will not represent them; if enough men are physically violent toward women, this will be represented in the culture, along with their conception of women. This pretty much makes “Not All Men Are Like That” objections fairly irrelevant when it comes to challenging male violence; they are all represented – and all groomed – by the culture regardless. Not all men have to be violent for all men to be entitled. We know that having children is a biological fact about women, that it is inherently harmful to their health, and most certainly precludes their participation in other aspects of public life because of the time, energy and resources involved. We also know that men are more violent than women across cultures, and that male primates in general are typically more prone to aggression. We also know that men are (on average) physically stronger than women, such that even if men and women had equal propensities toward violence, men would still be represented as dominant (by virtue of violence) in any resultant culture. As such, one reasonable material grounding for Gender lies in the cost paid by women through their reproductive vulnerability – ie. the inherent harm of pregnancy (and, by extension, PIV). Another is male violence, whether or not men are more biologically inclined toward physical aggression (which seems likely). If men are biologically predisposed toward violence, a weak bias that is sufficiently distributed (or a small distribution of a strong bias) would give us an emergent culture of manufactured male violence.
The second is that this is a pure model of what happens during cultural transmission. Culture is subject to zillions of factors, but if we simply pass these gendered stereotypes on and do nothing else this trajectory will get worse. The core components of Femininity (that is, the female-stereotyped behaviours passed on and amplified by culture) are subordination, ‘nurturing’ and sexual objectification. There has been feminist pushback in recent history that has made significant gains. But elsewhere in the culture, even over the last 20 years, these ideals have been measurably amplified; pinkification (and its concomitant grooming of girls into a ‘nurturing role’) is unprecedented; beauty ideals are physically impossible; and so on. These preferences aren’t innate for anyone (indeed, for some, it’s hard to imagine how they could be). Cultural transmission alone is enough to amplify, and accelerate, the cultural items that are in line with the original trajectory – that is, the items that support male power. Don’t get me wrong here; a lot of the manifestations will be intentional on the part of violent men; pornographers have run out of ways to torture women in this amplified culture. While intentional industries like this can inform Gender standards (which in turn inform such industries – hence amplifying both), implicitly acquired behaviour itself is a different kind of cultural product, that is not designed in the same way that an industry is.
The third is that it should not surprise us if Gender does not reflect the ‘innate’ conditions of either sex – but we would expect that it especially does not reflect any true state of women. Gender emerges as a cumulative and amplified result of small, yet fundamental, biological differentials in power. As long as the culture is a net gain for those with the deciding vote, and as long as enough men are finding it worthwhile, it will be passed on regardless of whether everyman feels 100% A-OK with it (which they might not, necessarily).
A fourth implication I find interesting here is the nontrivial difference between this materialist analysis, and that of , say, Marx. Marxist economic determinism also holds that culture is predicated on material conditions. For labour class politics, these conditions are economic, and in a real way this means the predicating material conditions are cultural products/organising principles in themselves. It is nontrivial, then, that the material conditions at the root of sex class politics are also biological. Can this be overcome by ‘revolution’ in the same way? If a man and woman were in a vacuum from society, would his strength and her reproductive vulnerability – and their mutual knowledge of these facts – be enough in itself to preclude the possibility of equal power distribution? I think that’s likely. Can society manufacture parameters that can overcome this, or is separatism the only way? This perhaps isn’t yet a useful question for us, politically, but it certainly bears thinking about.
I’ve made some preliminary case, I hope, for the following points:
- Gender is a set of accumulated ideas and principles that, as a whole, do not necessarily (and indeed perhaps cannot) reflect the ‘inner state’ of any individual person.
- As long a given system is a ‘net’ benefit to the people who have a bigger say, it will be passed on.
- An analysis of social constructs still raises the question of where norms originate, and why.
- To answer these questions, we must ground social construction theories in materialism and power-based analysis.
- Culture is predicated on material parameters.
- Small biological biases can become amplified in culture, and we can think of these biases as the “root”.
- Male violence and female reproductive vulnerability are the root from which our notions of Gender have grown.
2 thoughts on “Gender Is Socially Constructed (Upon Material Reality) by @umlolidunno”
I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that childbirth must place women at a disadvantage.
First off, most of the trials and travails we’re seeing with childbirth are happening in civilized* (domesticated, farming/city-dwelling) women. There are written accounts of pre-civ women who found it so relatively easy to give birth that they could do it in bed next to their sleeping husbands who were none the wiser til presented with their new son or daughter the next morning. It makes no sense for childbirth to be that dangerous; we’d have died out by now.
Secondly, indigenous tribal or village-dwelling women would smile at the notion that having a baby kept them out of public life. Baby-carrying devices are ubiquitous in pre-civ and pre-industrial cultures, from simple cords to elaborately-wrapped slings. Many of these cultures are also known for making space for women to participate in leadership decision-making for the tribe. Having a baby was just a fact of life, not an occasion to impose purdah upon the mother.
I think that insofar as we’ve got so many cultures now treating women as social pariahs after childbirth, that might be related to agriculture somehow. I’m suspicious that when agriculture was first developed, some guy somewhere did a little mental math and realized that when he did a certain thing to his wife, she grew a baby. Well, when he did a certain thing to the farm plot outside, it grew crops. Oh! He must be planting seeds inside her! Cool! He could farm babies like he farmed spelt! If you pay attention to ancient literature (and, frankly, literature dating as recently as the Renaissance!), you see references everywhere to sperm being seed. It was conceptualized as being a complete embryo that only needed a womb to grow in. “Well, farm plots don’t think, dirt doesn’t think,” the ancient farming man probably said to himself, “so I guess women don’t think either. Plus I need to control her movements to make sure only my seeds get planted.” Thus misogyny was born.
Just my guess, just my little suspicion but there you go. Treating women as weak little breeders happens all over the world NOW, but can we trace the spread of this cultural meme to coincide with the spread of agriculture? I suspect we rather could, if there were any physical evidence of it that survived time’s passage.
There are tribal men who also use women as chattel but I’m curious how much contact they’ve had with farmers over the centuries…
Anyway. Good stuff. I agree with you on your definition of culture and was pleasantly surprised to see someone else articulate it.
[*The term “civilized” is frequently shorthand for “well-socialized” among civilized people but that begs the question. Any human social group can be well-socialized whether it farms and city-builds or not; in fact I would argue that groups *not* doing these things are usually *better*-socialized. Usually.]
Maybe we can look at bonobo societies to get ideas on how to solve this issue. 🙂
(It mostly comes down to female solidarity and community building as I understand it.)
Very great article.
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