Exploring Social Constructs
On July 15, 2018, Kylian Mbappé kicked a ball over a white line drawn on a grass field. Thousands of people in the stadium cheered immediately, and millions more around the world joined the cheering as they watched on television. Many others who saw the ball cross the line became disappointed, sad, upset, frustrated, or discouraged. The game continued and France went on to defeat Croatia in the final game of 2018 FIFA world cup soccer match.
How can kicking a ball across a line cause so much excitement? This is the power of social constructs.
By collective agreement:
- We communicate using languages.
- Languages use symbols to connect certain sounds to objects and certain written symbols to those sounds and objects.
- There is a class of games called soccer in the English language.
- Individuals are selected to participate as soccer players.
- Other individuals are selected to act as referees, scorekeepers, coaches, commentators, security guards, ticket takers, and fans.
- The rules of soccer have been established.
- These rules describe what players can and cannot do.
- These rules define what actions are called goals.
- These rules define the points associated with each goal.
- These rules assign certain powers to the referees and scorekeepers.
- These rules define how a game ends.
- These rules define how points scored establish the winning team.
- Nations are formed.
- Soccer leagues are formed.
- Soccer teams are formed.
- National soccer teams are chosen.
- League rules establish tournament participants.
- League rules and cultural customs define the privileges awarded to the winning team.
The only brute facts are that a ball was kicked across a line on a grass field. Everything else that happened is a result of social constructs.
The objectives of this course are to help students:
- Identify social constructs.
- Differentiate social constructs from brute facts.
- Identify ambiguity in social constructs.
- Trace the agreements that generate social constructs.
- Improve the alignment of social constructs with brute facts and well-chosen moral reasoning.
All students are welcome and there are no prerequisites to this course. If you are having difficulty with any of the material, it may be beneficial to begin your studies at the beginning of the Clear Thinking curriculum.
- Hydrogen atoms contain one proton and one electron.
- The earth revolves around the sun.
- Objects fall toward the center of the earth.
- Water flows downhill.
- Water is solid (ice) at cold temperatures, liquid at moderate temperatures, and gaseous at high temperatures.
- Snow and ice accumulate near the summit of Mount Everest.
- Trees grow.
- Birds fly.
- Humans are mobile; they can stand, walk, and run.
- Humans are born, grow, become old, and die.
- Humans can vocalize sounds.
- Human vocalizations can be varied in duration, volume (amplitude) and pitch (tone).
- Humans hear sounds.
- Humans can distinguish sounds by volume, pitch, duration, and often the location of the source.
Endowing Brute Facts
Certain vocalizations count as words in the English language.
For example, uttering the sound “cat” is recognized as speaking the word “cat” in the English language.
Words represent objects in languages.
For example. The word “cat” represents a family of feline animals in the English language.
The general form of a social construct is:
X counts as Y in the context C.
In our cat examples, X = the sound “cat”, Y = the word “cat” and C = the context of the English language.
With sounds representing words, we can now have words represent objects as in:
X = “cat”, Y = a family of feline animals in C, the context of the English language.
When we endow brute facts with additional status, we create social constructs.
Social constructs rely on collective human agreement, or at least acceptance of the imposition of the new status Y on the brute fact X.
Example Social Constructs
Social constructs take many forms and are an essential part of our lives. Although they are human constructs, they are so familiar we often mistake them for brute facts. Several examples that will be used throughout this course to illustrate various characteristics of social constructs that distinguish them from brute facts are listed here.
Language is the most basic social construct and the basis for all others. The deceptively simple statements listed here are followed by several issues that each statement needs to resolve to be clearly understood.
- Red is my favorite color. (What range of hues are considered red rather than crimson, pink, rose, or magenta? Is red always your current favorite color, or just presently your favorite color? Is this your favorite color for all applications, or just for clothes, paintings, cars, and wall colorings?)
- I own a pet cat. (By what authority or mechanism has this ownership been established? Is there any record of this ownership? Did the cat have any right to refuse or requirement to consent to being owned? Is this ownership permanent or temporary? Can the ownership be transferred? What are the duties and obligations of pet owners towards the pet, the family members, and the larger community? What is a cat?)
- I promise to repay you on Tuesday. (Which Tuesday? Will you repay in full? Will the repayment include interest? What happens if you do not repay me on Tuesday?)
- Elija is an African American boy. (What boundaries are assumed here? What is Africa? What is African American? What is Boy?)
- Katlin Jenner is now a woman. (What boundaries distinguish “woman” from other possible gender designations?)
- We seek liberty and justice for all. (What is liberty? What is justice? Who are all?)
Institutional facts require various institutions to be created (as social constructs) for them to be meaningful.
- Paris is the capital of France, (France is recognized by various agreements or traditions as a nation. Paris is recognized as a city. The concept of a nation’s capital is established. The city of Paris is recognized as the capital.)
- The distance from Paris to Berlin is 546 miles (Paris and Berlin are recognized as geographic locations. Mile is recognized as a measure of length.)
- The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church. (The Catholic church is recognized as an organized religion. The role of Pope is established and endowed with various duties and powers. These duties and powers are accepted by many people who are members of the Catholic Church.)
Social constructs are ubiquitous and may be mistaken for brute facts. Here are examples of common social constructs:
- Games such as soccer, baseball, chess, billiards, poker, rock-paper-scissors, and tiddlywinks.
- Bureaucracies including organizations such as garden clubs, homeowners’ associations, charitable organizations, industry groups, and trade unions; and corporations such as General Motors, Amazon, and Limited Liability Corporations.
- Titles such as chairman, treasurer, president, king, Judge, Pope, and referee.
- Project schedules, budgets, plans, and forecasts.
- Governments including governing roles, government administrations, lawmaking, the rule of law, contracts, laws, regulations, taxes, judicial systems, military, and prisons.
- Commerce including property ownership, exchange agreements, money, debt, interest, and valuations.
- States including state boundaries and state governments.
- Religions including religious doctrine, sacred texts, religious organizations, and religious titles.
Social constructs depend on language and language is inherently ambiguous.
What is a cat? We can probably agree that a domestic house cat is a cat. But what about Felix and other fictional cats, lions, cougars, mountain lions, feral cats, kittens, stuffed animals, dead cats, Cheshire cats and other cat-like animals, objects, and artifacts? When we use words to represent objects boundaries become necessary, and it is often difficult to accurately align the boundaries suggested by the word to the variety of brute facts that exist in the universe.
In addition to the ambiguity of individual words, several controversies in the use of the English language (and other languages) contribute to the overall ambiguity of the language.
Ambiguity is inherent to our communication efforts. And while we may be able to align our notion of “cat” with some group of animals, it becomes more difficult to agree on the meaning of abstract ideas.
Because social constructs exist as human agreements formed from language, ambiguity in the language obscures the very foundation and intent of social constructs based on that language.
The scope—the extent of inclusion or exclusion—of language used to create social constructs is often ambiguous.
The intended scope of the second amendment to the United States constitution is famously disputed.
The amendment states:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
What is the scope of the phrase “bear arms”? The amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. At that time the most deadly weapon referred to as “arms” was a good musket or firelock. Brute facts have changed substantially since then. The wide range of firearms available today include semi-automatic assault-type weapons that are unlikely to have been conceived or anticipated by the authors of the second amendment.
The intended meaning of the phrase “a well regulated militia” is also unclear, especially in today’s context. In United States v. Miller (1939), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment did not protect weapon types not having a "reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. This interpretation was reversed in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) decision where the Supreme Court held the amendment protects an individual's right to keep a gun for self-defense. This was the first time the Court had ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own a gun.
Must the referenced militia be one that is “necessary to the security of a free state” as the amendment specifies, or will any form of militia qualify? A militia is a social construct endowing some group of people the powers to defend a state (where “state” is a social construct and the authorities establishing the militia obtain their power via several social constructs). What does “militia” refer to in today’s terms?
Using the general form of a social construct:
X counts as Y in context C
It seems clear that muskets (X) count as protected arms (Y) in the context (C) of 1791 militia. Can we also conclude that personally owned assault-type weapons count as protected arms in today’s context?
One interpretation of the second amendment, defensibly consistent with the original intent of the founders in 1791 would be:
If you are a member of a militia, and that militia is well regulated and necessary to the security of the free state, the government cannot infringe on your right to carry a musket while you are fulfilling the duties of that militia.
This is a very different scope from the current Supreme Court interpretation of the second amendment.
Natural boundaries are often diffuse, mobile and dynamic, defying precise definition. Social constructs can be troublesome when the brute facts don’t present a boundary that can be closely represented by the related social construct.
Here are examples where the social construct is not a good fit to the brute facts it attempts to represent.
In the United States, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 caused States to enact laws that prohibit the purchase of alcoholic beverages by anyone under the age of 21 years. As a result, a person who purchases alcoholic beverages one day before they turn 21 is breaking the law, but by waiting one more day they will be complying with the law. The brute facts are that a person will gain very little if any wisdom on the day they turn 21 years old, so why does the law make such a sharp distinction?
Individuals differ widely in the rate at which they mature, develop good judgement, and gain personal responsibility. Individuals differ widely in their tolerance for consuming alcohol. But it is much simpler to ignore these developmental gradations and other differences, and simply choose an arbitrary age to permit lawful purchase of alcohol. The socially constructed law is a poor match to the brute facts of individual readiness to consume alcohol. The law imposes a sharp boundary that is easily defined rather than accurately reflect a complex set of brute facts.
The resulting social construct is:
Turning 21 years old (X) counts as old enough to purchase alcoholic beverages (Y) in the context of United States law (C).
In another example, many people of sub-Saharan African heritage have skin that is rich in melanin and appears dark. These people have often been described as belonging to the negroid race. People of northern European heritage have skin that contains low levels of melanin, appears light and are often described as racially white. Children born as the result of interracial relationships often have intermediately colored, light-brown skin. Skin color exists in a continuous range from light to dark. Successive interracial relationship over several generations produce children with some proportion of dark skinned and light skinned ancestors that varies over an almost continuous range, based on their heritage extending many thousands of years.
Lawmakers intent on defining racial classifications are faced with overcoming the brute facts of continuous gradations of skin color. The one-drop rule is a social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States in the 20th century. It asserted that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry ("one drop" of black blood) is considered black.
The resulting social construct is:
Having any black ancestry (X) counts as being black (Y) in the context of one-drop-rules (C).
Clearly one-drop rules establish arbitrary boundaries where none exist simply for the purposes of defining racial classifications.
Laws often draw boundaries in unusual places to resolve issues of land ownership, mineral rights, and the practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Mineral rights are property rights to exploit an area for the minerals it harbors. Mineral rights can be separate from property ownership. Mineral rights can refer to sedentary minerals that do not move below the Earth's surface or fluid minerals such as oil or natural gas. Mineral estates can be severed, or separated, from surface estates.
This severability can create tension between mineral rights owners and surface rights owners if the surface rights owners do not want to allow the mineral rights owners to use their property to access minerals. This is becoming ever more present in the light of recent unconventional oil and gas development such as hydraulic fracturing due to recent technological capabilities. Problems include water pollution, fluid storage issues, and surface damages.
Wind and waves know few boundaries. This presents a problem for containing air and water pollution. Proposed solutions include charging a “pollution fee” when pollution-causing materials are extracted or manufactured. The funds collected are then distributed to those impacted by the pollution.
The resulting social construct is:
Creating pollutants (X) counts as owing a fee (Y) in the context of air or water pollution (C).
The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Because the commons include no internal boundaries, there is no way to control access by marking borders. Without some social construct to restrict access to air and water by polluters as described above, and limit access to wilderness areas, ocean and other shared fisheries, grazing lands, and other common goods these common goods can be exhausted by a few unrestrained users. This is called the tragedy of the commons and several solutions have been proposed.
- Read the Wikiversity essay Abstract and Natural Boundaries – Limits and Limitations.
- Notice boundaries that exist in nature and those imposed by language.
- Identify mismatches between natural boundaries and language-imposed boundaries.
- Challenge boundary definitions without entirely dismissing them. Improve language use to improve the alignment of language-defined boundaries with naturally occurring boundaries. This may involve recognition of transition zones or dynamic systems rather than sharp and static borders.
We have already seen that language can be ambiguous when we assign a label or symbol to represent an object. The word “cat” refers to some range of animals, and the word “red” refers to a range of hues. But cats are real animals that exist independent of human observation, and electromagnetic radiation exists in some range of wavelengths and intensities independent of human observation. Each of these words can be resolved to brute facts; you can hand me a cat or show me something that is red.
There is a class of nouns, call reifications, that do not refer to real objects, but rather to abstract concepts. Examples include justice, freedom, liberty, equality, rights, duty, responsibility, truth, fairness, and citizen and extend to include concepts such as race, land ownership, owning coal, money, debt, contracts, and even agreement. These labels cannot be resolved to brute facts but are often treated as if they do. This results in a reification fallacy. A map is not the territory, an image of a pipe is not a pipe, and there is little or no agreement on what “justice” is.
Simple phrases such as “we seek justice”, “justice was served”, “liberty and justice for all”, “establish justice”, and “ours is a nation of laws” become very ambiguous, complex, and controversial when we recognize the wide range of meanings attributed to the abstract concept of “justice”.
The concept of justice differs in every culture. Early theories of justice were set out by the Ancient Greek philosophers Plato in his work The Republic, and Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Throughout history various theories have been established. Advocates of divine command theory argue that justice issues from God. In the 1600s, theorists like John Locke argued for the theory of natural law. Thinkers in the social contract tradition argued that justice is derived from the mutual agreement of everyone concerned. In the 1800s, utilitarian thinkers including John Stuart Mill argued that justice is what has the best consequences. Theories of distributive justice concern what is distributed, between whom assets or liabilities are to be distributed, and what is the proper distribution. Egalitarians argued that justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality. John Rawls used a social contract argument to show that justice, and especially distributive justice, is a form of fairness. Property rights theorists (like Robert Nozick) also take a consequentialist view of distributive justice and argue that property rights-based justice maximizes the overall wealth of an economic system. Theories of retributive justice are concerned with punishment for wrongdoing. Restorative justice (also sometimes called "reparative justice") is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of victims and offenders.
Casting the broad concept of justice in the in the form “X counts as Y in context C” yields this general statement:
A specific action (X) counts as warranting a corrective response (Y) in the context of some jurisdiction (C).
The specific action can range from a child’s rambunctiousness and disobedience through many forms of bad manners, insult, incivility, nastiness, malevolence, to misbehavior, petty crimes, property damage, assault, cheating, personal injury, theft, treason, and murder. The corrective response can range from a child’s “time out”, a scolding, a disapproving glare, verbal rebuke, social isolation, a request for apology, truth and reconciliation, public humiliation, threats, a punch in the face, a duel, dismissal from some informal or formal association, shunning, a traffic ticket, fine, restitution, probation, confinement, jail term, capital punishment, or other sanction. The jurisdiction can be interpersonal, parental, social, organizational, ideological, or local, state, national, or international governing agencies.
Various philosophical principles guide sentences imposed by judicial systems. The most common purposes of sentencing are: retribution, deterrence, denunciation, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and reparation.
None-the-less, despite ambiguity we have proceeded to write laws, create courts, pass judgment, determine guilt, impose sentences, confine people and even take their lives using various social constructs created in the name of justice. Social constructs based on ambiguous concepts have real consequences every day.
- Identify words you use that are reifications.
- Identify reification fallacies you observe.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on the Virtue of Justice.
- Identify some action you believe warrants some corrective response.
- What is a justified corrective response?
- What theory of justice did you use to identify that corrective response? How did you choose that theory?
- Identify three existing laws that you regard as especially just. Why are they just?
- Identify three existing laws that you regard as especially unjust. Why are they unjust?
- Choose a word that is a reification from the list at the beginning of this section, or one that you identified during part 1 of this assignment.
- Perform an analysis of that word that is analogous to the analysis of “Justice” above.
- How is the word used in typical conversation?
- What range of meanings does it have?
- How can it be cast in the form of “X counts as Y in context C”?
- Identify examples of existing social constructs based on the word.
- What benefits and difficulties exist with those social constructs?
Collective agreement or acceptance is a crucial element in the creation of institutional facts and social constructs.
Who must agree before a social construct emerges? Who agreed that:
- uttering the sound “cat” refers to certain furry animals,
- I would learn to speak American English as my first language,
- It is impolite to interrupt when others are speaking,
- Paris is the capital of France,
- we measure distance in feet and miles rather than meters and kilometers, and
- kicking a ball across a goal earns one point in the game of soccer?
Agreement may be implicit, explicit, voluntary, or coerced, informed or uninformed. As a result, agreements may be genuine or defective.
We tacitly accept many social constructs that form the traditions and cultures we grow up with. These include our choice of natural language, the meanings of various words and grammatical structures in our language, some respect for the authority of our parents, other adults, and other every-day authority figures such as community leaders, teachers, governing officials, and law officers. We learn some rules of etiquette, civil behavior, public order, and public health. We tacitly accept the rules of various games we play, sporting events, queueing disciplines, religious beliefs, and boundaries such as personal space, personal property, public areas, restricted areas, and some concepts of trespass. We learn that a promise represents an obligation that may or may not be upheld. We often accept rules for property ownership, economic systems, money, debt, and the role of some institutions.
As we grow older, we may question, challenge, defy, reject, or change many of these constructs.
- Identify at least three social constructs you have tacitly agreed to.
- Identify any you have questioned, challenged, defied, rejected, or worked to change.
Often, we deliberately choose and explicitly represent our agreement to a social construct. The simplest forms of agreement are made between two individuals.
Making a promise to another person to do or not do something is the simplest form of explicit agreement that creates a social construct. A verbal agreement is enough to create an obligation, a duty, to do what you said you will do. A written agreement can be useful to make clear what is being promised, and to establish a durable record of that agreement. Vows, oaths, and pledges are promises that are witnessed and often made in public.
The resulting social construct is:
Making a promise (X) counts as creating an obligation (Y) in the context of sincere communication (C).
A contract is a form of promise that can be enforced by drawing on many other social constructs. By signing a contract, you are acknowledging your explicit understanding and agreement to the terms of the contract. A contract is a legally-binding agreement which recognizes and governs the rights and duties of the parties to the agreement. A contract is legally enforceable when it meets the requirements and approval of the law.
If you and a friend agree to play a game of chess, you are making an implied promise to each other that the play will be governed by the rules of chess throughout the duration of the game. Chess rules have evolved over several centuries and are believed to be derived from the Indian game chaturanga beginning sometime before the 7th century. The rules are presently maintained by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), the game's international governing body. Before beginning your game, the two of you are likely to agree if this is an informal game or if you are playing by competitive rules, using a chess clock, and other agreements on the formality of play.
Agreeing to play a game of chess involves agreements with two very different characteristics. You and your friend are totally free to decide when and if to play the game, however, by agreeing to play the game you are both agreeing to follow the rules of chess, which were previously established without your involvement.
Agreeing to play chess invokes this social construct:
Moving a piece of wood (X) counts as threatening or capturing a piece (Y) in the context of chess (C).
Agreeing to play any game such as a board game, card game, or sports game has a similar structure. If you agree to play, the play is governed by the rules of the game, which often have ancient and distant origins.
Often agents or representative make the agreements, ostensibly on our behalf, that create social constructs that we then are bound by.
A birth certificate is the first encounter a new-born has with bureaucracy created from social constructs. Examining the agreements required to establish a birth certificate requirement illuminates many mechanisms social constructs rely on. Birth certificates have evolved over a long history and today are required by State Law throughout the United States.
The documentation of births is a practice widely held throughout human civilization, especially in China, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia. The original purpose of vital statistics was for tax purposes and for the determination of available military manpower. In England, births were initially registered with churches, who maintained registers of births. This practice continued into the 19th century. The compulsory registration of births with the United Kingdom government is a practice that originated at least as far back as 1853. The entire United States did not get a standardized system until 1902.
Most countries have statutes and laws that regulate the registration of births. In all countries, it is the responsibility of the mother's physician, midwife, hospital administrator, or the parent(s) of the child to see that the birth is properly registered with the appropriate government agency.
In Colonial America recording births became an official function in 1632 when the Grand Assembly of Virginia legally convened an annual presentation of church-related events such as christenings, which entailed recording births to ensure individual rights, primarily for property. In 1639, Massachusetts took the next step requiring the government to record these vital events rather than clergy recording baptisms.
The chain of agreements creating a variety of social constructs leading up to birth certificate regulations includes:
- Rule by monarchy has prehistoric origins. Succession of the monarch is often hereditary and occasionally disputed. Legitimacy of the monarchy is traditional and is maintained by force when necessary. Civil order is preserved so long as subjects agree not to challenge the sovereignty of the monarch.
- King James I became king of England and Ireland on March 24, 1603. When he was King James VI of Scotland he developed the theory of the divine right of kings giving himself a mandate from God to rule England and Ireland.
- The London Company was an English joint-stock company established in 1606 by royal charter from King James I with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America.
- In late 1606 The London Company organized a for-profit expedition to establish a settlement in the Virginia territory.
- In 1616 King James I designated George Yeardley Deputy-Governor of Virginia.
- On July 30, 1619 instructions from the London Company to the new Governor Sir George Yeardley established the Grand Assembly of Virginia at Jamestown.
- In 1632 the Grand Assembly required recording births to ensure individual rights, primarily for property.
- Subsequent political actions, including the American Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, established subsequent governing structures.
- Subsequent government actions established today’s birth certificate regulations.
Note that many of these agreements are assumed, tacit, traditional, imposed, or reluctantly accepted to avoid worse alternatives.
Lawmaking has become faster over the years. The United States Code of Federal Regulations is so large it is divided into 50 titles and that is only one form of law. No one knows how many laws exist. Although each law is a social construct, and social constructs exist as a result of general agreement, it is difficult to trace the actual chain of agreement that generates each of the existing laws that govern our lives.
Social constructs are often made based on agreement that are coerced or otherwise defective.
Users are required to sign a credit card agreement before obtaining a credit card. These agreements are typically lengthy, difficult to read, difficult to understand, written by lawyers to provide advantages to the credit card company, and are legally binding. Although these agreements are signed voluntarily, obtaining a credit card is contingent on signing an agreement. Because failure to sign the agreement prevents you from obtaining a credit card, and the agreements are difficult to understand the agreement is not entirely voluntary.
Service agreements are common. Users are typically required to accept service agreements before receiving utilities such as water, sewage, garbage collection, electricity, fuels such as gas or heating oil, cable TV service or internet service. Websites often include terms of service agreements, and end-user license agreements often govern software use.
These are often lengthy, difficult to read, difficult to interpret, predatory, and largely ignored. For example, in May 2011 the iTunes agreement was 56 pages long. Terms of Service; Didn't Read is a community project which aims to analyze and grade the terms of service and privacy policies of major internet sites and services.
The social construct that creates service agreements is:
Signing a service agreement (X) counts as authorizing the terms of the agreement (Y) in the context of the Rule of Law (C).
This true even if you did not read the agreement, understand the agreement, choose the terms of the agreement, or prefer not to authorize and abide by the terms of the agreement.
Although signing a service agreement can be annoying, being compelled to pay taxes is typically more costly. You are typically compelled to pay taxes when you purchase a product, own land, or earn income. U.S. Income tax laws are very complex. This complexity contributes to the perception they are unfair. Tax avoidance, tax sheltering, tax evasion, and tax protests are attempts to reduce tax payments and resist taxation that is seen as unfair.
Taxation results from social constructs based on a complex and elusive chain of agreements, many of which are defective.
Social constructs create the need for referees of all stripes. Referees are integral to competitive sports contests. Language usage is refereed by dictionaries, style guides, grammar checkers, and grammar experts. Judges referee disputes over language used in contracts and other legal documents. Parliamentarians, mediators, arbitrators, ombudsmen, diplomats, and other negotiators resolve disputes.
The court system is the referee of last resort for resolving legal disputes.
Actual and perceived objectivity and impartiality of the referee is essential for sustaining confidence in the institution. Instant replay in sports, appeals of legal decisions, and judicial review of legislative actions seek to increase the objectivity, accuracy, and impartiality of official decisions.
- Identify social constructs in your life where your agreement is genuine.
- Identify social constructs you are compelled to accept and uphold despite where your agreement is absent or defective.
Remarkable Social Constructs
Money is an especially remarkable social construct. When recognized as money slips of paper, plastic cards, electronic messages, or ledger entries, are readily exchanged for items having substantial intrinsic value. Nearly all contemporary money systems are based on fiat money and lacks intrinsic value as a physical commodity. Fiat money derives its value by being declared by a government to be legal tender; that is, it must be accepted as a form of payment within the boundaries of the country, for "all debts, public and private".
People will endure boring careers, risk dangerous work, abandon family members, betray friends, lie, cheat, steal, offer sex, and even kill for money. People will trade land, houses, cars, boats, jewelry, food, natural resources, and art for money. The value of money varies based on inflation and deflation. Saving money accumulates wealth. Borrowing money creates debt that requires repayment of both principal and interest. The interest owed often compounds rapidly. Although small debts must be repaid, large debts can be discharged via bankruptcy.
The social constructs are:
Slips of paper (X) count as money (Y) in the context of fiat money (C).
Money (X) counts as having value (Y) in the context of modern economies (C).
In May 2019 a stainless steel rabbit sculpture by Jeff Koons sold at auction for $91.1 million. Both the valuation of the sculpture and the money paid for it are social constructs.
Money is primarily a story of trust.
An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control short of insurrection.
Autocrats ignore human rights, silence independent voices, murder or imprison dissenters, ignore and often promote corruption, demonize minority populations, stack courts with biased judges, restrict travel into and out of the country, rig elections, and disrupt economies.
It is remarkable that autocrats can attain their positions, gain so much power, exercise that power to the detriment of many people they rule over, and sustain their positions.
The social construct is:
An individual (X) counts as a supreme power (Y) in the context of an autocracy (C).
Who agreed to that‽
What is the basis of land ownership? The brute facts are that land exists and that people exist. Any mechanism that provides someone privileged access to a parcel of land is based on use of force or social constructs.
The history of Pennsylvania is an interesting example. Pennsylvania's history of human habitation extends to thousands of years before the foundation of the Province of Pennsylvania. Archaeologists generally believe that the first settlement of the Americas occurred at least 15,000 years ago during the last glacial period, though it is unclear when humans first entered the area known as Pennsylvania. The area that is now Pennsylvania was the home to the Lenape, Susquehannock, Iroquois, Erie, Shawnee, Arandiqiouia, and other American Indian tribes prior to the arrival of European colonists. Most of these tribes were driven off or reduced to remnants as a result of diseases, such as smallpox, that swept through long before any permanent colonists arrived.
The 1497 expedition of John Cabot is credited with discovering continental North America for Europeans. European exploration of the North America continued in the 16th century, and the area now known as Pennsylvania was mapped by the French and labeled L'arcadia, or "wooded coast", during Giovanni da Verrazzano's voyage in 1524. In the 17th century, the Dutch, Swedish, and British all competed for southeastern Pennsylvania, while the French expanded into parts of western Pennsylvania.
During the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667), the English took control of the Dutch (and former Swedish) holdings in North America. At the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the 1674 Treaty of Westminster permanently confirmed England's control of the region.
On March 4, 1681, Charles II of England granted the Province of Pennsylvania to William Penn to settle a debt of £16,000 that the king owed to Penn's father. Penn founded a proprietary colony that provided a place of religious freedom for Quakers. Charles named the colony Pennsylvania ("Penn's woods" in Latin), after the elder Penn. Penn landed in North America in October, 1682, and founded the colonial capital, Philadelphia, that same year.
Before 1763, the Colonial history of the United States was characterized by private purchases of lands from Indians. Many of the earliest deeds in the Eastern states purport to commemorate such transactions. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 changed matters, reserving for the Crown the exclusive right of preemption, requiring all such purchases to have Royal approval. It was also an attempt to restrain colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The British recognized American independence after the American Revolutionary War In 1783 and the and the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788. The United States government was formed.
Pre-Revolutionary land transactions remained the subject of political and legal disputes well after Independence. However, in sharp contrast to post-1790 transactions, no Indian tribe has yet succeeded in litigating or receiving compensation for a pre-1790 transaction. The prevailing view remains that the colonial governments, and the state governments that succeeded them during the Confederation era, had the power to authorize the alienation of indigenous lands within their borders
After the United States government granted land to Revolutionary War soldiers for military service, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a general land act on April 3, 1792. It authorized the sale and distribution of the large remaining tracts of land east and west of the Allegheny River in hopes of sparking development of the vast territory. The process was an uneven affair, prompting much speculation but little settlement.
Three major land companies participated in the land speculation that followed. Holland Land Company and its agent, Theophilus Cazenove, acquired 1,000,000 acres of East Allegheny district land and 500,000 acres of West Allegheny land from Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice James Wilson.
In modern property law, a title is a bundle of rights in a piece of property in which a party may own either a legal interest or equitable interest. In United States law, typically evidence of title is established through title reports written up by title insurance companies, which show the history of title (property abstract and chain of title) as determined by the recorded public record deeds.
The modern-day social constructs are:
A property title (X ) counts as conferring rights of land use (Y) in the context of property law (C).
These social constructs are the result of long chains of agreement, often requiring coercion and even conquest, that in turn depend on the social constructs of money and autocracies.
In short, land ownership is ultimately based on conquest.
As a result of remarkable social constructs, owning coal is truly a bargain.
Owning coal conveys the rights to: 1) own a non-renewable resource, 2) permanently destroy that resource, and 3) create pollution at no cost to you. Furthermore, the coal may have been extracted from beneath land owned by someone else.
Mineral rights are property rights to exploit an area for the minerals it harbors. Mineral rights can be separate from property ownership in a split estate. Obtaining mineral rights authorizes the owner to extract coal and own the extracted coal.
Owning coal is more peculiar than owning land because coal is a non-renewable resource that is typically permanently destroyed by its (ultimate) owner. Land is reusable by its next owner; coal is burned by its present owner.
Furthermore, coal and the industry that extracts it cause significant environmental impacts. These impacts include impact on land and surroundings, river and water pollution, waste disposal, wildlife impacts, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, radiation exposure, and dangers to miners.
The costs of these impacts are not born by the owners of the coal but are born by many others.
In short, although it’s not your coal and it is your pollution, owning coal conveys the rights to obtain it for the cost of extraction and ignore the costs of the inevitable environmental impacts.
The brute facts are that coal is a non-renewable resource and extracting coal and burning coal have significant environmental impacts.
The related social constructs are:
Obtaining mineral rights (X) counts as owning coal (Y) in the context of property law (C).
Owning coal (X) counts as having the right to destroy it (Y) in the context of mineral rights (C).
There are few if any well-established social constructs that connect owning coal with responsibility for replenishing the supply or compensating for its environmental impacts.
Religions are primarily stories that have been told and retold so often that people believe them.
Religion is a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.
A brute fact is that the standard model of particle physics is all that has ever been discovered in the universe. The standard model does not include any materials, particles, or forces that can cause supernatural phenomenon.
Other brute facts are that people are influenced by stories; people seek answers to existential questions such as: Where did we come from? What should I do? And what happens after death?; and we evolved in tribal communities.
The related social construct is:
Other social constructs create roles for religious leaders and organizations for their followers.
- Complete the Wikiversity course Beyond Theism.
- If you hold religious beliefs, examine them to identify the brute facts and the social constructs that form the basis for your beliefs.
- When did you agree to accept those social constructs?
Friction occurs when the socially constructed boundaries of politically defined states conflict with groupings of people that evolved their common culture organically over many years.
A state is a political organization with a centralized government that exerts authority within a certain geographical territory. There is no single, undisputed, definition of what constitutes a state. A widely used definition is a state being a polity that, within a given territory, maintains a monopoly on the use of force. Examples of states include the member states of the United Nations.
A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.
A people is a plurality of persons considered as a whole, as is the case with an ethnic group or nation, but that is distinct from a nation which is more abstract, and more overtly political.
A people and nation evolve from the shared cultural habits of some group of humans. In contrast, a state is formed as the result of conquest, treaty, or negotiation. Conflicts occur when state boundaries that disrupt cultural and ethnic groups are imposed by force. Examples include the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Many social constructs create state boundaries, state governments, state leaders, state laws, and the many other constructs that emerge to create and sustain states.
- How does each of the social constructs described above affect your life?
- What, if any, agreement did you make to create or participate in these social constructs?
- What other social constructs do you find remarkable?
When exploring social constructs pay close attention to the alignment of brute facts with the associated social constructs. In the examples above, alignment is poor between:
- Slips of paper used as money and compound interest and debt that can accumulate from the related social constructs.
- The supreme powers given to an autocrat by the social constructs that create autocracies is poorly aligned with the wisdom any individual can attain, and the allure of power that temps so many humans.
- The rights of land ownership created by property titles conflicts with the brute facts that land predates human habitation.
- The right to destroy non-renewable resources and avoid responsibility for the pollution they cause is misaligned with the damage created by extracting and burning coal.
- Supernatural beliefs that sustain most religions are misaligned with the brute facts of our physical universe.
- The politically derived boundaries of states conflict with cultures that evolved organically.
- Identify various social constructs in your life.
- Examine the alignment of various social constructs with the corresponding brute facts. Identify any misalignments.
- How can that alignment be improved?
Many social problems are caused by mismatches in the social constructs we create and the brute facts of our universe. Here are some examples:
- Laws that allow slavery are mismatched with the brute fact that human nature transcends race.
- Laws that abridge or fail to protect human rights are mismatched to human needs.
- Mandatory sentencing is often mismatched to the social impact of the crime.
- Authority granted to various official titles, organizational positions, and leadership roles is often mismatched to the talents, experience, motivations, and moral reasoning of the person holding that role.
- Wealth that accumulates out of proportion to the value of the net contributions made is mismatched.
- Project schedules, such as those that contributed to the deepwater horizon explosion, are often mismatched to the process capabilities of the work being done.
- Arbitrarily creating boundaries when a characteristic varies continuously creates a mismatch.
- The arbitrary definitions of race and age cited above are examples of mismatched boundaries.
- Many classification schemes used in legal definitions, regulations, or official reporting have this defect.
- Winner take all contests, markets, and other schemes leave nothing for the many.
- Attempts to define a specific point in time when human life begins is mismatched with the continuous nature of fertilization, embryo development, fetal development, and the brute fact that a soul is only an illusion.
- The binary choice between being found legally guilty or not guilty creates a false dilemma that is mismatched to the range of misconduct that occurs.
- Myths, folklore, fables, fairy tales, folk tales, proverbs, legends, narratives, storytelling, rumors, gossip, spin, propaganda, origin myths, and docudramas are all social constructs that are often only loosely, if at all, based on facts. Well-told stories can be easy to understand, remember, recall, and retell. Simplistic explanations can obscure complex phenomena. Acts of ordinary courage can be elevated to heroism; powers can become superpowers; and citizens become patriots. When stories say what you want to hear, they are easy to believe. This may be what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had in mind when he said “Patriotism ruins history”. Stories prevail, even when they misrepresent the relevant facts and spread disinformation.
- A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. Metaphors influence how we approach a topic or define a problem. Consider the differences in “love is war” and “love is a garden” or “love is a thrill ride.” Phrases such as the “War on drugs” establish a combative framework for considering the problems of illicit drug usage and identifies the drugs themselves, rather than the users, dealers, suppliers, drug treatments, or drug-related laws as contributing to the problem. Contrast this with drug policy that recognizes “drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated... making drugs more available will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe" When metaphors are mismatched and can become misleading they obscure or distort brute facts.
- An ideology is a set of beliefs intended to describe how the world works, or how it should work. An ideology is a particular way of looking at the world, often codified into a doctrine. Often our religious, political, and economic beliefs are drawn from an ideology. You may also follow particular lifestyle choices such as veganism, or environmentalism based on a particular ideology. Ideologies substitute socially constructed models for brute facts. Many ideological models do not correspond well to reality. “Essentially, all models are wrong,” George Box noted, “but some are useful.” Beware of substituting an ideology for a careful examination of reality. The Wikiversity module on Examining Ideologies examines this in more depth.
- A bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution, whether publicly owned or privately owned. Systems in a bureaucracy often work to shift responsibility and authority, manipulate information, obfuscate communication, and use power to defy fact and reason. A bureaucracy can prevent responsible people from achieving excellent results.
- When results are disappointing, friction becomes evident, conflict emerges, or work becomes frustrating, identify the social constructs that are operating.
- Troubleshoot the problems with the social constructs. Analyze those constructs to identify:
- Ambiguity that is causing problems with the social construct;
- Alignment mismatches between brute facts and the social constructs;
- The nature of the agreements that created the social constructs, and
- Referees that are absent, biased, or ineffective.
- Determine what you can change and what you cannot change.
- Work to remove the mismatches.
Summary and Conclusions
Brute facts exist in the world independently of humans or human institutions. Humans often endow brute facts with additional status to create social constructs. The most fundamental social construct is language. Sounds count as words in the context of language. Words count as symbols representing objects, actions, characteristics, ideas, or concepts in the context of language. The general form of a social construct is: X counts as Y in the context C. Social constructs exist as a result of collective human agreement, or at least acceptance, that brute fact X can be endowed with the new status Y in some context C.
Social constructs are so common we often mistake them for brute facts. Games, governments, laws, courts, money, committees, memberships, titles, awards, contracts, property ownership, land deeds, religions, marriage agreements, codes of ethics, bylaws, financial transactions, debt, taxation, national boundaries, treaties, corporations, officials, authorities, and even languages are all social constructs.
Institutional facts are facts that can exist only within human institutions. For example, the institutional fact that “Paris is the capital of France” relies on the social constructs of Paris as a city, France as a country, and capital as a political designation.
Because social constructs rely on language, they are inherently ambiguous. Social constructs also rely on agreement, and that agreement can be assumed, tacit, traditional, imposed involuntarily, or reluctantly accepted to avoid worse alternatives. Agreements creating social constructs are often defective because they are not based on the explicit informed consent of the people they affect.
As a result of ambiguity and defective agreements many social constructs are poorly aligned with the brute facts they are based on and many mismatches occur. These cause friction in our society and can contribute to many challenges we face. By observing the mismatch of social constructs to brute facts and informed consent, we can begin to troubleshoot and improve the collection of social constructs that create our culture and institutions.
The bad news is that we face many issues resulting from social constructs misaligned with brute facts or based on defective agreements. The good news is that because social constructs are human constructs, we can work to improve them.
Work to improve social constructs.
Students interested in learning more about social constructs may be interested in the following materials:
- Searle, John R. (January 1, 1997). The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0684831794.
- Searle, John R. (January 12, 2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 236. ISBN 978-0199829521.
- Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark (April 15, 2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-0226468013.
- Graeber, David (October 28, 2014). Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House. p. 560. ISBN 978-1612194196.
- Eisenstein, Charles. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition. North Atlantic Books. p. 469. ISBN 978-1583943977.
- Jackson, Tim. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan Publications Ltd. p. 286. ISBN 978-1849713238.
- Piketty, Thomas (August 14, 2017). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. p. 816. ISBN 978-0674979857.
- Snyder, Timothy (February 28, 2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books. p. 128. ISBN 978-0804190114.
- Albright, Madeleine (January 29, 2019). Fascism: A Warning. Harper Perennial. p. 294. ISBN 0062802186.
- Linklater, Andro (May 19, 2015). Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership. Bloomsbury USA. p. 496. ISBN 978-1620402917.
- Speckhardt, Roy (July 28, 2015). Creating Change Through Humanism. p. 206. ISBN 978-0931779657.
- Block, Peter (November 30, 2016). The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work. Wiley. p. 240. ISBN 978-1119282402.
- Campbell, Joseph; Moyers, Bill (June 1, 1991). The Power of Myth. Anchor. p. 293. ISBN 978-0385418867.
- Harari, Yuval Noah (February 10, 2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper. p. 464. ISBN 978-0062316097.
- Mackay, Charles (November 1, 2016). Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. p. 386. ISBN 978-1539849582.
- Orwell, George (March 1, 2017). Animal Farm. Fingerprint! Publishing. p. 152. ISBN 978-9386538284.
- Orwell, George (January 15, 2013). Politics and the English Language. Penguin Classic. p. 48. ISBN 978-0141393063.
- Lewis, C. S. (April 21, 2015). The Screwtape Letters. HarperOne. p. 209. ISBN 978-0060652937.
I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.
- Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese
- The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, by Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann
- The term “brute fact” has a range of interpretations. I am generally following the usage by Searle in this course.
- The ability for us to communicate via this essay requires significant language skills, which are social constructs. Nonetheless, the statements remain true regardless of the language used to communicate them, and even in the absence of (and prior to) language development.
- This and subsequent references are understood to refer to most humans. Another brute fact is that some people never attain these abilities.
- Searle, John R. (January 1, 1997). The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0684831794. @ 99 of 730
- Searle, John R. (January 1, 1997). The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0684831794. @ 21 of 730 for “human agreements” and @ 149 of 730 for “collective agreement or at least acceptance…”
- Equality is also a complex and contested topic. See, for example: Gosepath, Stefan, "Equality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
- Searle, John R. (January 1, 1997). The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0684831794. @133 of 730
- Frequent Reference Question: How Many Federal Laws Are There?, Library of Congress, March 12, 2013.
- See, for example the sample credit card agreements listed by bank of America or search the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau credit card agreement database.
- See, for examples, the terms of the IMDB site terms, cited at: https://tosdr.org/
- Pidaparthy, Umika (May 6, 2011). "What you should know about iTunes' 56-page legal terms". CNN. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
- World’s Autocrats Face Rising Resistance, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019
- A property title is not a brute fact, it is a piece of paper endowed with the power of “property title” by the previous social construct. However, I am using the original form of “X counts as Y in context C” to illustrate a cascade of social constructs where an antecedent social construct is used to establish an institutional fact that is used here as if it was a brute fact.
- A New Americanism Why a Nation Needs a Nationally Story, Jill Lepore, Foreign Affairs, March / April 2019, Volume 90, Number 2.
- Musolino, Julien (January 6, 2015). The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. Prometheus Books. p. 287. ISBN 978-1616149628.