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Social Construction of Reality

Social Construction of Reality

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize the social construction of reality, and how it relates to symbolic-interaction theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. This lesson is going to cover an extremely important idea in sociology, something you'll hear me say again and again in other tutorials. And it's the social construction of reality.

This idea that reality is not some hard, fast, and fixed. But is, in fact, malleable and changeable. And it's negotiated when we get together in groups and come up with shared meanings for things, shared symbols, like language and the way we use objects and make meaning and understand what the objects mean in society. And of categories, what it means to be white or black in American society. What it means to be male or female in American society.

There's nothing natural about why things are the way they are. Things are the way they are because it's a product of social interaction. When we get together in groups, we make meaning. This is a core premise of being human, we're meaning-making machines.

And really, to understand the social construction of reality, it's to see the human as a blank canvas. Or as an empty vessel, an empty jar that's capable of being filled with all kinds of ideas and meanings and culture. And each society does this for its members. It paints the canvas, the blank human canvas a certain way.

When you're born in to the society, you learn the meanings, and the culture, and the symbols of that particular society. So there's no natural way to do things. Everything you see around you, every object, every word you say, everything we do except for our basic biological behaviors has been socially created by humans interacting in groups. And this is why we see such a startling array of diversity in human society and in human cultural artifacts. The diversity underscores this idea of being a blank canvas that gets painted by the culture of your society.

So for instance, when you learn language, there's no necessary link between an animal, a deer, that thing-- you know what a deer is-- out there in the world and it meat that we call venison. The actual biological creature running out there all over the world has been labeled different things and understood different ways. And has been understood as meaning different things in different mythologies, et cetera.

So Native American groups-- they saw this thing out there in native America and they interacted with it. And interacted with each other about that thing out there. And gradually, this meaning of deer-- they gave it a symbol, a way to call it something. We call it deer. They probably called it something different. But they developed a way to talk about it in the language and symbolize it.

And this is done differently in every culture. So this reality of this thing deer and what it means in society is constructed by each separate society. So look at a cow.

We eat it. It's one of the most eaten animals in America. But in India, they don't eat it. The cow means sacred. The cow is equated with sacred. This is a completely different meaning, constructed meaning of what the cow is in each society.

Creating different meanings of the same thing in different cultures, it implies the reality is not fixed, but it's malleable. It's alterable. And it's shaped when we interact with each other and when we get together in groups. And we are creative agents in this process of reality.

We call this the social construction of reality. It's key to see it as a process of interaction. It's a process by which human beings create the meaning of situations, of things, of people, of objects, and even of society, of economics, of politics, of ethics, of morality. Everything-- reality itself-- is constructed through interaction.

And you might be thinking this sounds very familiar to symbolic interaction and the symbolic interaction perspective. Symbolic interaction is the foundation of the social construction of reality. And recall that the symbolic interaction perspective also focuses on meaning making in interaction, and holds that humans live in a world of meaningful objects and symbols that we ourselves construct in our day-to-day micro interactions.

In addition to socially constructing meanings of objects in the environment, like we mentioned with the deer and the cow, and developing systems of symbols, like language to refer to these things and talk about them in groups, we also construct meaning in complex, abstract things like understanding what it means to be a family. Construct the meaning of capitalism, of the economic system, of politics and ethics.

To illustrate a little bit more complex social construction of reality, let's look at how the family is constructed. You have you in the middle here. And you have mom, dad, brother, sister. And I have on the board also, dad's sister, dad's brother, mom's brother, mom's sister. Where do we draw the boundaries of family? How do we decide who connects to who, et cetera? Because different societies do this differently.

We will call this the immediate family in our society, this right here. But other societies have constructed family differently. And they've said that dad's brother is also called dad. The Iroquois system of kinship traces dad's brother as dad to you. So dad then would be lumped in with this party of your family, but dad's sister wouldn't be. She'd be called aunt, and et cetera.

The opposite on the other side. Mom's sister would be called mom and mom's brother wouldn't. And this reflect the construction of family in that society.

But in our society, we do it like this. And then within the family, you interact with dad. As you grow up, dad learns from you, interacts with you. Dad is interacting with mom, talking about the kids. You're interacting with your sister. Your brother and your sister are interacting. Everyone's interacting with you and developing this notion. You go on family vacations together. All of your interactions with each other through the years develop a family called the Smiths.

And so when you say to somebody, I'm Tim Smith, or I'm Becky Smith, whatever it happens to be, that has meaning to you. The Smiths could be horribly dysfunctional. Dad could be abusive. Mom could be gone. All of these interactions that you have through time with each other as a family contribute to meaning.

And we have roles in the family. Mom has a certain set of roles. Females have certain sets of roles that are constructed. Dad has certain sets of roles. And there's nothing natural about what it means to be female or male in society. We construct them in interaction.

And sociologists are very interested in the social construction of these categories and many more categories like them. In addition to gender, sociologists are really interested in what it means to be white or black in society. How race then is constructed and given meaning.

Humans are-- there's no different biologically black, white. But yet, we construct socially all these meanings of those two skin colors. And what it means to be white or black in America is not what it means to be white or black in Australia, necessarily. They have a whole different social construction of those categories.

What it means to be young and old. What it means to be gay or straight. What it means to be in a family. I hope that you see then that all of this stuff is not fixed. It's socially constructed and it can change through time. And it often does change through time. Reality is something shaped. It's malleable.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to social construction then. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Social Construction of Reality

The process whereby people shape and create reality through their interactions.

Symbolic-Interaction Theory

A theoretical framework that holds humans create meaning in their day-to-day, micro-level interactions.