Saturday, December 14, 2013

Social Construction Follies: Sex is a Social Construct

Wow, what a disaster.

You really can't have a serious discussion about this sort of thing if you use the term 'socially constructed', which is used to mean so many different things at different times that any claim involving it is too vague, ambiguous and otherwise unclear and slippery to evaluate.

This person wants to say--apparently, but God knows--that sex is real but created by society. This is, of course, false. Her reasons are of two types, basically: (i) there are several different, real biological distinctions that map onto sex, and (ii) male and female are vague categories admitting of borderline cases. It follows from neither of these that sex is a social creation. The universe generally and biology in particular is clumpy. That is, it is made up of natural kinds. Individuals strongly tend to fall into these kinds, but the kinds are fuzzy. As Peirce points out: it is characteristic of real kinds to admit of borderline cases. There are borderline cases of stars, for example (in which gas clouds have not yet become dense enough to generate fusion a their cores, though they're headed in that direction); and biology is permeated by borderline cases: borderline cases of life (e.g. viruses), borderline cases of species (e.g. ligers), borderline cases of organs (in which cells have just begun to differentiate into organs in fetuses), and so on.

The thing about real kinds is that you can make scientifically important generalizations about them. There is simply no doubt that this can be done with respect to male and female. As a matter of fact, there's a fair bit of science that you can't do unless you recognize these categories. Ideological blathering isn't going to change this.

Furthermore, real kinds can be identified by multiple different criteria. Dinosaurs, for example, are archosaurs with their limbs held erect underneath their bodies--and the criteria for belonging to archosauria is complex and multi-criterial.

Unsurprisingly, none of the arguments in this piece in any way show that sex--i.e. the distinction between male and female--is something we made up. Nor is it unreal. Nor is it any fuzzier than the other real biological categories and distinctions upon which the science of biology is built.

The real problem, however, is that no serious discussion can be conducted in which the central term "socially constructed." The term is not even close to being precise enough for serious inquiry. Any time you find yourself inclined to use that term, you should ask yourself what you really mean and what claim you are actually trying to make.


Blogger Aaron Boyden said...

Have you read Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? Naturally, I don't agree with Hacking about everything, but I think it's a great discussion of the issue of what this "social construction" terminology could possibly mean, and for that matter of some more general realism/anti-realism issues.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I read that many years ago. IMO FWIW, it's good, but there's a lot of room for improvement on it.

4:19 PM  

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